The Challenges Of Political Graffiti Cultural Studies Essay

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Graffiti is a term for images or letters scratched, scrawled, painted or marked in any manner on property. It is referred to any type of public markings that may appear in the forms of simple written words to elaborate wall paintings. Graffiti has existed since ancient times, dating back to Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire.

In modern times however paint, particularly spray paint, and marker pens are the commonly used graffiti materials. Most countries consider marking or painting property without the owner's permission, defacement or vandalism, a crime punishable by the law.

Graffiti is also used to express social and political messages, known as political graffiti. (MISTERY INTERVEIW, 2009). Graffiti has a reputation to be a part of a subculture that rebels against authority. It can be used to express a political practice forming just one tool in an array of resistance techniques. Examples:- the campaign of stenciling anti-war, feminist and anti-consumerist messages was popularized by the London underground system during late 1970's and 1980's. Graffiti was also a part of the punk scene in Amsterdam and the city was flooded with names such as 'DE ZOOT' and 'Dr. Rat'. The developments of graffiti art that took place in art galleries, colleges and "on the street" or "underground", contributed to the rising of a far more overtly politicized art form (SFT, 7OCT 2007). These movements or styles define the artists by their relationship to their social and economic contexts. In some areas where number of artists share the impermanence ideal, there grows an informal competition. The competition is such that longer the work escapes destruction, higher is the amount of respect it has gained in the community. A crude work that deserves little respect would be removed immediately and work by talented artists lasts for days. Artists whose objective is to assert control over property and not to create an expressive work of art, political would resist switching to impermanent paints. (Kroonjuwelen,29SEPT, 2006)

We shall discuss more in detail about the power of political graffiti citing the examples of Muhammad Ali and Bansky and their contributions in raising awareness for the people of Palestine.



Muhammad Ali is a British artist from Birmingham. His work on canvas is a marriage between the timelessness of Islamic calligraphy and modern street art of graffiti. His works can be seen in exhibitions in England. From a tender age Mohammad Ali had a strong passion for art. He was a student of history of art, and studied fine art at university. He was interested in graffiti (particularly in the eighties when graffiti was just introduced as an expressive art).

'From those days I was always inspired by painting on the wall - the colors and the vibrancy and the impact of graffiti on others,'(Art salam in the city, feb23- march 2 2006)

His art teacher did not like or approve of graffiti. While studying the lives of artists, he became disillusioned with being an artist, and thought it was just a waste of time. 

He had a yearning to do something more challenging and fulfilling with his life and did not want to waste it away by being just another artist.

Ali experimented with graffiti and Arabic. His motive was different- he wanted to use his art for a purpose, to educate people, or to sell his work and donate the proceeds to charity.

Graffiti being 'controversial' was one of the reasons Ali was drawn to it. He thought he could use his graffiti to break a lot of barriers.

"I'm dealing with something pretty controversial here. We have a double negative: we have this graffiti, and we have the Muslims! Mix the two and you've got something pretty crazy!" (Art salam in the city, feb23- march 2 2006)

By doing so Ali has gained two things- recognition and acceptance for graffiti art and the chance to inform people that Muslims can be creative.

Islam is the central element of Ali's art. Ali describes himself as a Muslim first and then as an artist who uses his art as a tool. Most people would educate others about Islam using talks and lectures, but Muhammad Ali is doing this visually through his art work. He has taken traditional aspects of Islamic art and given them a contemporary twist.   This style made him a favourite artist amongst Muslims. In fact many find it refreshing. Ali's work shows the positive impact that western art can have on Muslim society, keeping the essence of its spiritual influence.

As a multimedia student Ali introduced digital art into his work. Ali did not get his inspiration from reading about art in libraries but was rather inspired from what was around him. He loved photography, browsing funky websites, playing video games, scanning books and magazines, billboards on the street.

As a UK-born Muslim gritted deeply into urban art, Ali did not prioritize his religion. But, later following a string of misfortunes, that included a car crash, Ali found himself asking: 'Are you here to eat sleep and die and that's it or is there a little more to it?' (Art salam in the city, feb23- march 2 2006) That is when he discovered Islam as that 'more' he was looking for. As Ali embraced Islam, he then encountered Islamic calligraphy and its visual aspect appealed to Ali's artistic sensibility.

'I was fascinated by people representing their faith creatively, I've always been a creative person and I thought "even in faith I'll be able to express myself". (Art salam in the city, feb23- march 2 2006)

Uniting his past as a secular graffiti artist with his newfound faith to create a contemporary spiritual art, he nicknamed them calligraffiti. 'Koranic scripts were traditionally written with ink, so why not write the same scripts with the tool of today, a spray can?' Ali considers calligraphy and graffiti to be parallel forms of art: one delivers the artist's own message, and the other delivers the word of God. (time out magazine, salam in the city, jan2010)

At the same time when Ali introduced calligraffiti, he also noticed the work of the UK photographer Peter Sanders, who converted to Islam in the 1960s. The two collaborated on a project around the theme of spreading the message of spirituality. Salam in the City - which translates as Peace in the City - was thus born. The only difference was that Ali captured spirituality through spray and Peter through his camera lens. (time out magazine, salam in the city, jan2010)

Traditionally graffiti was painted on walls located on routes high with human traffic. It has tended to appeal more to the younger generations. It is viewed as a subversive art mainly, because it battles with authority. However, Ali left this tradition behind his Gaza graffiti collection was not subversive because permission was sought from the owners of all the walls before the execution of the paintings. Ali's art is described as building a bridge between communities, especially in areas where faith and race relations have suffered in recent years. (time out magazine, salam in the city, jan2010)


Currently the issue Ali's tackling with his art is the ban of Hijab in France. Through his art he is trying to portray the hijab as a positive symbol. Ali represents Muslim women in his work. He uses images with some description and explanations, to inform his audience what the hijab is really about. He also uses his art as a dawah tool, raising money for charity because he feels that otherwise the art is just a waste of time.

He also plans to start his own clothing line. The style he'd use is urban/Islamic almost like street-urban wear, but with messages from Islam, and statements about peace etc. 

He wants graffiti to be a public form of art, that is why he takes painting from pristine showrooms and relocates them it to the streets. (Muhammad ali, aerosol, Arabic, 2009 )


The Israeli bombardment on Gaza has left over a thousand people killed many of whom were children. What surprised Muhammad was that very little was being done to stop this crime against humanity. And that when he thought he should paint murals that highlighted the condition of people of Gaza, and Palestine as a whole. Therefore he put up the GAZA graffiti on the streets of Birmingham, England on January 4th 2009 (free gaza, april 18, 2011). This graffiti is not different from what he's done before but is a continuation of his work. Most of his past murals speak of qualities such as truth and qualities which people can feel. And his recent mural does just that because it voices that what's happening in Gaza is a concern for the whole of humanity. Muhammad feels people from all faith and background must unite and stand against the atrocities which are taking place. The feelings in the mural represent all communities including Muslims, Christians and Jews, who should stand against these crimes where innocents are killed. His mural screams the words Free Gaza, speaking to those that don't know and reminding those that are forgetting.

He's received support from the people who are from Gaza, as well as those who have families back in Gaza. So far he's painted about four walls in the city of Birmingham, and has received help from the young people of the city, many of which are from different faith. However, he still feels he's not been able to do much.



Banksy is an anonymous English graffiti artist, political activist, film director and painter. He combines irreverent dark humor with graffiti done in a distinctive stenciling technique to produce satirical street art and subversive epigrams. (Faces of week, Sept 2006)

The son of a photocopier technician, Bansky was initially trained as a butcher but later became a graffiti artist. He got involved in this art during the Bristol aerosol boom in 1980's. His style of graffiti art using stencils is a lot like Blek le Rat and the punk band Crass. Banksy displays his work on public surfaces like walls but the pictures are sold by art auctioneers. Bansky never sells the photographs of his street graffiti or mount exhibitions in commercial galleries, because he believes that his art represent the statements he lives by.

Through his art Bansky makes statements, ironies and epigrams with cheeky and intelligent comments. He comments on topics such as monarchy, capitalism, war in Iraq and farm animals. (KELLY WADSON, 2008).

Till now his identity remains unknown, but his work however is extremely appreciated by the mass.

He also entered into the world of movies as a director. His first movie titled 'Exit through the Gift Shop' released in UK on March 2010. It was a short movie that didn't work very well with the critiques, who tagged the movie as a disaster. (Kay Jeremy, 26th Jan, 2010).

Banksy began his career as a freehand graffiti artist 1992-1994.He was inspired by local artists and most of his work was a part of the larger Bristol underground scene. Bansky believes in giving his best and accepting challenges. It doesn't matter to him if he just has to draw a moustache on a girls face or work on a harder mural that requires extensive work; he always delivers his 100%. And his passion can be seen in his works.

Stencils are the key elements in his art. But nobody knows exactly how Bansky generates his stencils. This is obviously because of the secretive nature of his work. Some say he uses the computer for his designs; however the earlier street artists developed stencils, by drawing patterns onto acetate sheets and cutting them out by hand. It was in 2000 that Bansky chose to adopt the stencils as his tool because it would take lesser time to finish his art. He was introduced to this art when he noticed a stenciled number plate, while hiding from the police under a rubbish lorry. (The bansky paradox, july 2007).

Bansky's influenced culture by relating it to art and society. He believes that culture should be more about ideas than objects. It's like an on-going dialogue. He's also influenced the pop culture by focusing on public space and showing that everybody can be a part of art and culture. Therefore in essence his direct art was gaining a direct response.

Banksy's works have been centered upon an array of political and social themes which include anti-War, anti-capitalism, anti-fascism, anti-imperialism, anti-authoritarianism, anarchism, nihilism, and existentialism. His work commonly critiques human greed, poverty, hypocrisy, boredom, despair, absurdity, and alienation. Banksy's works rely on visual imagery and iconography to bring forth his message. (Wall and piece, 2006).

"Sometimes I feel so sick at the state of the world; I can't even finish my second apple pie."(Wall and Piece, 2006).


In his book (WALL AND PIECE, 2006) Bansky quotes "We can't do anything to change the world until capitalism crumbles. In the meantime we should all go shopping to console ourselves."

A lot of Bansky's work depicts his dissatisfaction with the capitalist society. He criticizes the fact that the advertisers are given access to people's lives through ads and billboards, but the common people are not allowed to express their views. If they do, then they are accused of vandalism and innumerous issues of trademarks, intellectual property and copyrights are imposed upon them.

He argues that "any advert in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours." (WALL AND PIECE, 2006).

Bansky believes that graffiti is the last form of art that hasn't been affected by the profit motive.

"The people who run our cities don't understand graffiti because they think nothing has the right to exist unless it makes a profit." (WALL AND PIECE, 2006).


The Wall around Qalqiliya is a twenty-five foot high concrete cage which cuts residents off from their agricultural land and also prevents traveling even 5 minutes out of the City. Only a single gate opens at the whims of the occupying army controls. This wall is built by the Israelis who bulldozed and confiscated countless acres of Palestinian land, cut off thousands of farmers from their sole livelihood. (Brain Sewell, 2005).

Banksy wanted one amongst those who stood against this atrocity and voiced his opinion through this art.

"How illegal is it to vandalize a wall?"

Was a question put forward by Banksy in his website introduction to his Wall project,

"if the wall itself has been deemed unlawful by the International Court of Justice? The Israeli government is building a wall surrounding the occupied Palestinian territories. It stands three times the height of the Berlin wall and will eventually run for over 700km - the distance from London to Zurich. The International Court of Justice last year ruled the wall and its associated regime is illegal. It essentially turns Palestine into the world's largest open-air prison." (Brian sewell, 2005).

He put up graffiti that visually subverts and draws attention to its nature as a barrier by incorporating images of escape -- a girl being carried away by a bunch of balloons, a little boy painting a rope ladder. Other pieces were also used to invoke the reality of the inhumane nature of the barrier--- children in areas cut off from any access to the sea playing with sand buckets and spades on piles of rubble that look like sand, and corners of the wall peeled back to reveal imagined lush landscapes behind. (Brian sewell, 2005).

Banksy is the anti-Leni Riefenstahl and anti-Richard Wagner, reclaiming public spaces as a space meant for public imagination and enlightenment which have instead become propagandistic barriers to thought and awareness. Banksy's summer project on Israel's Wall stands out as one of the most pertinent artistic and political commentaries in recent memory.


Thus these two artists have used the political aspect of graffiti to voice out their opinions and stand against injustice. Political groups and individuals may also use graffiti as a tool to spread their point of view.

The practice of graffiti, due to its illegal nature has been favored by groups excluded from the political mainstream. They justify their activity by pointing out that they do not have the money, or the desire to buy advertising to get their message across, and that a "ruling class" or "establishment" control the mainstream press, purposely excluding the radical/alternative point of view.