Negative Space

Prague crush-groove

It is symptomatic of our time to direct hate and suspicion against people who want nothing more than to create their own art, an art they feel compelled to express in an era that stubbornly refuses to concede that the first and foremost mission of art is to serve people who wish to live together in truth.” —Ivan Martin Jirous, 1975

We live in a writerly universe.

Stemming from the Greek graphein (to write), graffiti is part of the ancient tradition of folk art—art made by the people, for the people. Unlike official art, hidden away in galleries and museums for the appreciation of a select few, graffiti is limited by its inevitable mortality. It carries no economic value, and is treated thus, painted over or, at best, weathered into finitude. In graffiti, no economic exchange is necessitated between the viewer and the artist. The fact that it is up there, in your face, and instantly causes a reaction, positive or negative, is a miraculous thing. The claim that it sparks deviant behavior is propaganda. Anyone who views graffiti as a societal menace, as opposed to an asset, doesn’t deserve to see it at all. Aesthetically, graffiti is a rebellion against the oppressive greyness of the urban environment. It’s a visual response to the rhythms of a city. It’s about enlivening an ugly barren wall with color and energy, turning an eyesore into a beautiful artifact.

Although the scene is small and relatively young, Prague is home to some of the most talented graffiti writers in Europe. Their work is recognized here and abroad, appearing on walls, trains, magazines, the Internet and art galleries. With the proliferation of all kinds of graphic art rooted in the original tags, throw-ups and pieces from over 30 years ago, local writers are playing a key role in detaching graffiti from its roots as a strictly urban art form. Love it or hate it, graffiti is infecting the world.

Early Daze

“I remember when the city was completely clean,” reflects Wladimir 518. “Before the Velvet Revolution, there were maybe five tags in the center of Prague, all written by foreigners. There was no graffiti here.” Once the wall came down, foreign writers began flocking to the city of a thousand spires in droves, in search of fresh territory. In turn, young Czechs were exposed to graffiti subcultures abroad for the first time. When throw-ups and pieces began appearing in Prague between 1992 and 1994, the biggest influence on local writers was nearby Berlin, considered by most the graffiti capital of Europe.

“TCP (The Color Posse) was the most skilled crew at that moment in time,” says graffiti advocate Susan Farrell of the early Prague scene. “Scum struck me as the most talented writer. Besides the influence of foreign writers, from what I saw, it seemed like politics, social concerns, and pop art (comics and rock music art) were the main subjects.” Farrell is the main force behind Art Crimes, the oldest and most comprehensive archive of graffiti art on the net. Updated constantly, the website also features news, interviews and articles, a bibliography, and links to everything graffiti online.

“The idea of making Art Crimes occurred to me one night in Prague. I should say ‘infected’ me. The idea struck me and I was suddenly on fire to do it. I was inspired by the graffiti I’d seen in Prague and in Atlanta (where I lived at that time) to make an Internet archive for graffiti art, so that the whole world could see it and contribute to it. It was clear to me suddenly then that graffiti was a worldwide expression and that it was very important to document it.”

1994 was also the year Wladimir 518 began bombing trains with some of the first crews in the country and documenting the activities of he and his friends in the first issues of Terorist? Magazine. Starting off as a xeroxed fanzine, Terorist? is now a full-color glossy distributed around the world. He’s also a member of hip hop group PSH (Peneři Strýčka Homeboye), runs a record label, paints, collages, and does graphic design—“but no advertising,” he insists. Over the years, his personal style has morphed into more abstract lettering and images, which can be seen in his artwork as well as his collaborations on illegal walls throughout Prague.

“It’s very dangerous to write graffiti anywhere in this city,” he says. “You have to go with friends. Otherwise, people who see you get very angry, call the police.” Wladimir studied briefly at AVU, Prague’s art academy. “I dropped out because of their attitude toward graffiti. They don’t understand it, don’t make any effort to view it as art. So I left to do my own stuff.”

Arrested at Anděl

Despite its early roots in the urban African American community and subsequent ties to hip hop, graffiti writers come from all walks of life. Dog God, a British expat who plays in a popular local rock band, became an aerosol practioner after moving to Prague.

“This was the first city [I lived in] that had any graffiti,” he says. “So I looked at it a lot, seeing patterns, how other people copied others. But I had become interested in angels and was collecting drawings of other people’s by asking them to draw the first picture of an angel that came into their head.” Dog God choose the angel archetype he liked the most.

Last December, he had the idea to paint one angel every night of the month in a different location. On the 17th night, he was arrested—ironically, at Anděl (Angel). “I was getting cocky,” he says. “I was chased around Kampa Island one night, but besides that, nothing. So I chose a junction at Andel with six roads and I took no extra lookout friend. I’d finished the piece and was chatting with a woman who lived in the house. She said it was nice. I was in no hurry. I turned around to pick up my stuff and saw that there was a car close by. I said ‘dobrý den’ as this was some of my only Czech at the time.

“They made me stand like in the movies, feet apart facing the wall and then cuffed me. One of them was really shaking like his adrenaline was up. I had imagined getting caught and knew I would be very polite and helpful. So they took me back and held me from 2am til 9ish in the morning without speaking to me, letting me have any water or phone calls.

Then they said I could have an interpreter. “When I started giving my statement about mystery and [how I was giving] Christmas presents to Prague, they chilled out a bit and thought it was funny. Like, ‘why is this English teacher doing this?’ “They managed to get the owner of the building to agree to a lower fine of 2,000 Kč for his wall and not take me to court. They asked me to come back and show my passport, and then they said they would phone me. I gave them my real details and just never received a call.

“Interestingly, the boys from [hip hop magazine] Bbarak gave me a lift to Amsterdam in the summer and said that at a public meeting between the police and graffiti artists, the police were using my case as one of their successes, a person they had caught and fined!”

Like many graffiti artists, Dog God feels that graffiti belongs on the streets. He expresses excitement over the spirit of graffiti, yet is critical of what he views as homogeneity in most graffiti styles—an appropriate stance for one of the few local graffiti artists who, like Pasta, have broken with the traditional methodology of graffiti in order to take it to the next level, developing his own brand of street art in the process.

“This medium is a ripe, cool, fast injection to the mind. Graffiti doesn’t have much status because it can’t be bought. The artists aren’t trying to make art, but identify themselves with a scene, just like wearing certain clothes. It is not about pushing the form forward. Even though there might be some bravery and cunning, a lot of it is similar and without that much imagination. There have been some attempts to take it into the gallery space, but it’s just a temporary idea. It belongs on the streets.”

Like in most places, graffiti is illegal in the Czech Republic and violators can be subjected to stiff sentences. A new law was passed this year targeting aerosol artists. Whereas before, the crime was filed under vandalism, a misdemeanor in the Czech Republic, this year’s more specific paragraph 257/b, “damaging someone’s property with spray paint,” is now considered a criminal act. Depending on the owner’s assessment of the damage, defendants caught redhanded may be subjected to a fine or up to one year in prison; for damage exceeding five million crowns, defendants can receive two to eight years in prison.

In the last two years, arrests for graffiti-related crimes have tripled. In 2001, there were 105 cases with a resulting 1,330,000 Kč in damages, while in 2002, there were 371 cases resulting in 3 million crowns in reported damages. As of the end of March this year, police have reported 84 graffiti cases for 2003 and an estimated 1,100,000 Kč in damages. In the past, there has been a certain amount of judicial leniency in dealing with graffiti offenders. Although many have been prosecuted, former president Václav Havel pardoned every single offender. With the passing of 257/b, the possibility that Václav Klaus will be so forgiving is slim.

Bringing up the police subject with local graff artists results in a mixture of anger and outright dismissal. Dog God’s case is one rare example of a writer lucky enough to slip through the system.

Your Tag Here

Most of the graffiti one sees in the center of Prague that is loathed by tourists and residents alike are tags. Unlike the piece, the tag may appear to be a nearly illegible scrawl executed with little or no skill. This is because it usually is. A tag is meant to convey a simple, poignant message: that the person who wrote it was there. It is a mark of identity created by that individual to signify their presence, the physical manifestation of the primordial need to communicate, to “make a mark,” a need that commodity culture attempts, and often succeeds in stifling. Oftentimes the space where the tag appears has special significance for the person who wrote it—perhaps they had a special “moment” there or in the environs, or alternately it may have been chosen randomly.

Although tags are frequently employed by experienced graffiti artists, they’re usually the work of novices, revealing the earliest attempts to develop an individual style.

The tag disrupts the urban environment—is “ugly”—only in that it represents an alternative way of viewing issues of ownership and space. It is natural for individuals who’ve been conditioned to accept society’s meaningless conventions at face value to feel assaulted by the image of a tag. But to write off a tag as worthless is to pass judgment on the individual who wrote it without even knowing them. It is unsurprising that the “war against graffiti,” as it’s been unsurprisingly worded by the mainstream media, is fought by two opposing camps: the powerless and the powerful. It is those powerful individuals, who feel most insecure about their possession of power, who are the most vocal opponents of graffiti. For them, the tag—the proclamation of identity and presence by a powerless “opponent”—becomes a negative space, which will remain so until it is reclaimed—erased—by its rightful owner.

Piece by Piece Pieces—grandiose artistic productions (short for masterpieces)—are usually executed on walls or trains. A piece is the apotheosis of graffiti art, where the accomplished writer shows off his skills. Pieces naturally take longer to execute, so there’s more risk involved for the artist, who usually must take several trips to complete it. Since the artistic value of pieces is so often apparently high, this is where anti-graffists tend to lose the argument. Unsurprisingly, in the last 20 years more and more businesses have begun commissioning graffiti artists for murals on their buildings.

Many young graffiti artists go on to careers in other forms of art production, often engineering elements of graffiti style into new cultural concepts. The Maurer Firm in Holland transforms three-dimensional throw-ups into architectural constructions. Point, who started bombing trains when he was 15, has begun exhibiting his innovative sculptures in group shows at NoD and Gallery Art Factory. Pasta’s street art has evolved into a mixed media deconstruction of public space and advertising. Pasta, Point, and Wladimir 518 are three of the better known writers who’ve been on the scene since the very beginning (Wladimir estimates that the total number of writers in Prague today is around 100.) Much respected by up-and-coming writers in the burgeoning hip hop community and involved in a multitude of outside projects, they continue to risk their lives out of dedication to creating street art.

Caps, cans and markers are available from Samet, Cimburková 17 in P3. Thanks to John Caulkins and Markéta Hoffmeisterová for research assistance.

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