Reverse graffiti is one of those rare modern spectacles that is both faultless and inspiring: dirty city surfaces cleaned to render temporary, color-negative images. Rather than using aerosol spray paint, reverse graffitists use water and detergent on urban surfaces to create art or advertisement.
“I call it refacing, not defacing,” wrote Paul “Moose” Curtis, the first street artist to make reverse graffiti. In 2004, the Manchester native told NPR that he first got the idea when he saw that people had written their names with their fingers on dirty tunnel walls in Leeds, England. Since then, Moose has created artwork to call attention to all kinds of environmental degradation. His primary tools were those of a cleaner: shoe brush, rainwater, detergent, and elbow grease. He used the grid of the wall tiles to create shapes and letters (and only recently has started getting recycled plywood stencils). Perhaps Moose’s most famous project was transforming downtown San Francisco’s 140-foot-long Broadway Tunnel into a mural of the trees that had once stood there. “It does take a certain kind of weirdo to spend five hours cleaning a massive message on to a dusty ring road tunnel wall while people are abusing you in passing cars and it’s really cold. But every mark I make is an environmental statement because it allows you to see how dirty the world is,” he confessed to Financial Times Magazine in 2011. Moose got members of the public directly involved with the creation of his statement by asking them to send him images of indigenous trees.
Other reverse graffiti artists have also used their work to promote the green movement. Banksy marked the end of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Conference by creating a series of murals on global warming, one of which depicted the statement “I don’t believe in global warming” submerged in water. The so-called “Da Vinci of Dust,” Scott Wade, uses ordinary artist’s brushes to simultaneously clean off dust, gravel, and clay and render realist portraits of Einstein, the Mona Lisa, and even the famous poker dogs on the rear windows of cars.
Adding to reverse graffiti’s liberal-progressive image is the fact that, with permission, anyone can do it. Last year, NYC-based fashion designer Simon Guindi decided he wanted to create reverse graffiti somewhere within the five boroughs. Guindi’s friend, Veronica Menendez, soon joined the project. Menendez got in touch with the board of a co-op on the corner of 60 MacDougal St., facing Houston Street. She discovered that the rental fee for the wall was cheaper for art than for advertisement, and gained the board’s permission for the project: Greene Street NYC. As stated on its website, “This project was born from a fascination with reverse graffiti and its innovative way of creating clean art.” They strive to create a “clean art movement,” searching for any opportunity for “this type of art to manifest itself for everyone to see.”
Prior to meeting Guindi at a fashion brand launch party, Menendez had never heard of reverse graffiti. Prior to meeting Menendez, Guindi had never met Chris Choi, the artist and fashion illustrator who would design the murals. As Menendez, a full-time fashion designer, puts it, “The cool thing is, [Choi, Guindi, and I] all did this together without expecting anything out of it. We’re all designers, we were excited to do it—to make art, to send the message of reverse graffiti—and to do it on the street.”
There had been some “traditional” graffiti on the Houston Street wall already, and, following the contract with the co-op, the designers painted over it with black pigment. Choi used a power hose to wash off the first layer of paint,using stencil designs, eventually free-styling more artwork elsewhere on the wall once he got the hang of the machine. In an ironic twist, a street artist covered Choi’s art with his own graffiti—of the traditional, spray-paint variety.
Through Kickstarter, Greene Street was able to raise $15,136 in one month, exceeding its goal of $15,000. “I reached out to everyone I knew about the project,” Menendez says. “A lot of friends helped out—as well as someone I didn’t know from Ireland!” The team rewarded those who pledged $20 or more by having their names power washed onto the street. The mural, depicting first a series of bikes and then the words “WASH YOUR STEP” surrounded by environmentally harmful aerosol spray cans, stayed on the building from May to August—just in time for the end of the rental period.
While Greene Street’s designers may have been America’s reverse graffiti visionaries, they are no longer the only ones with the power wash and stencil know-how on our side of the Atlantic. Now, appreciating reverse graffiti’s artistic appeal and environmental value, companies such as Microsoft, the BBC, Starbucks, and Green Works have hired reverse graffiti artists to advertise for them. In 2009, Domino’s Pizza invested just under $20,000 in the marketing firm GreenGraffiti to create an ad campaign consisting of 210 “street impressions” in New York, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles.
Even at the local level, reverse graffiti has garnered interest. When word spread about Greene Street NYC, including a feature in the Wall Street Journal, Guindi, Menendez, and Choi were bombarded with future project opportunities. A local restaurant asked to have its special dishes imprinted on the sidewalk before their entrance. A huge co-op on the Lower East Side wanted art on the walls in its community. TechCrunch requested that its name be put at its office entrance. A British company even wanted to use Greene Street’s reverse graffiti equipment and make a hashtag for the project. But as Menendez tells me, it is not easy to obtain permission for the use of a wall and the adjoining building’s water supply—with or without a lease.
After all, the love child of environmentalism and street art naturally cries controversy. Critics of reverse graffiti often label it vandalism, no better than “normal” graffiti, long demonized by many urban reformers. An influential idea in sociology from 1982, called the “broken windows” theory, states that if a neighborhood does not address even its pettiest crimes, it will descend into chaos and violence. Having persuaded New York mayors such as Rudy Giuliani and Ed Koch, “broken windows” resulted in a crackdown on subway graffiti, countless arrests of graffiti artists, and even a law banning the sale of graffiti instruments to anyone under 21.
In the 21st century, however, graffiti has gained legitimacy as it has evolved from an illegal act of rebellion into a legal and compelling art form. Graffiti groupies argue that the medium is as ancient as cave drawing, and its name originally held artistic, not criminal connotations. The Italian word “graffito” referred to a “drawing,” “method of decoration,” or “scribbling on an ancient wall, as those at Pompeii and Rome.” Graffiti, in other words, is not an activity exclusive to a particular socioeconomic class or culture. Indeed, in his book Graffiti Lives: Beyond the Tag in New York’s Urban Underground, sociologist Gregory Snyder attributes the enduring appeal of graffiti to the vision of socioeconomic equality: “You don’t need money, or special knowledge, or the right outfit, or a car, or an ID to see it. This is why the graffiti subculture has inspired such a diversity of young people.”
As a kind of creative cleanup of the environment, reverse graffiti inspires more permissiveness than normal graffiti. Washing walls, after all, never has been, and never will be, illegal. In his more than decadelong career, Moose was briefly arrested but never charged; he told Financial Times Magazine that “most of the time the police officers just go, ‘Wow. That’s really cool.’” Even on a larger scale, reverse graffiti has merited more discussion than blunt condemnation. When GreenGraffiti founder Jim Bowes asked to pay licensing fees for plastering public property with advertisements in 2010, he realized he was entering a legal gray area. The New York Times reported, “In truth, neither the authorities nor Mr. Bowes knows whether GreenGraffiti’s widespread outdoor ad campaigns are even legal. That is because Mr. Bowes’s company is not putting up posters or monopolizing on billboard space. It is ‘washing’ corporate logos onto dirty sidewalks.”
Since then, even more companies have commissioned reverse graffiti artists for advertising purposes. This past August, for instance, fashion designer Eileen Fisher stamped a sidewalk near the 23rd Street subway station with the words “We’d Like Our Clothes Back Now #ThxVeryMuch” to advertise an Earth Day-inspired recycled clothing initiative. Whether or not these companies obtained permission for their advertisement, asking to clean public spaces seems harmless to bureaucrats and citizens alike. As communications student at the University of Toronto and Street Art Blog creator Andrew Perucho wrote, “I think reverse graffiti is one of the more ingenious forms of street art out there. I believe the movement promotes cleanliness as well as providing beautiful works of art. It gives graffiti a good rep and is great for the planet as it doesn’t pollute the environment with hard materials and toxic chemicals.”
What does the future look like for reverse graffiti? As the term becomes more and more of a buzzword, “reverse graffiti” runs the risk of becoming predictable, like the flash mob that no longer surprises anyone. But then again, in the case of reverse graffiti, what really matters is the message behind the image: the desire for and commitment to clean art, as well as the satisfaction it brings an artist to undo the dirt and grime of decades past. And this feeling, unlike the art, is something that won’t fade away.