Glasgow is plastered with numerous large-scale murals, from the squirrel poised on a skull under Kelvin bridge to the hip hop marionettes in the city centre, it is widely agreed that these pieces are a great addition to the city. I use the word ‘mural’ because this is how the council likes to refer to the graffiti it has, in fact, commissioned. When you think about it, it seems obvious – there is no way someone could have whipped up the photorealistic modern day depiction of St. Mungo on the High Street in a few minutes in the dead of night before fleeing the scene to avoid being charged with vandalism.
Although, it is great that the council is in favour of brightening up the city with unique and inspiring artwork that is public for everyone to see, this has led to a narrow selection of artists being approved to create such murals while anyone else that seeks to express themselves on a public wall is breaking the law. The same names – Sam Bates (Smug), Bobby McNamara (Rogue-One), and James Kling (Kilngatron) plus a few others – appear repeatedly in the ‘City Centre Mural Trail’, a guide produced by the council to take people around the city’s street art which has either been council funded or produced by the Art Pistol Projects. These artists, many of whom started out as unfunded law-breakers, are clearly extremely talented and have improved the city centre with their colourful work but I can’t help thinking that Glasgow’s famous murals are drifting away from the purity of grassroots street art and losing the sense of rebellion and free speech that was once at the heart of all graffiti. At its best, grassroots graffiti abolishes elitism from the artist and the viewer – anyone can take a spray can to a wall and everyone can see the resulting image. At it’s worst, it is little more than a scribble reading “Dave was here” next to a doodle of a misshapen penis. The latter end of this spectrum resulted in graffiti covering the area of 12 football pitches was removed from Glasgow walls in a six-month period.
One of the reasons the council commissions such large pieces is to prevent unwanted graffiti at places thought to be hotspots for spray can wielding artists. Despite commissioned large-scale murals by established artists being commonplace in Glasgow, ‘legal walls’ for anyone to graffiti have not existed until earlier this May when ‘Yardworks’ took place. SWG3 hosted Glasgow’s first street art festival, inviting well known artists from around the world as well as amateurs to get creative with spray paint. The main spectacle of the two-day event was the installation of a 50ft mural by Spanish street art duo, PichiAvo. This event came almost exactly a decade after Banksy hosted an exhibition called The Cans Festival on Leake Street, in London. He invited graffiti artists from around the world to paint whatever they wanted as long as they did not cover other people’s work.
Writing about street art, the cliché that is Banksy was inevitably going to be mentioned. His wit, poignant political messages, and simple but striking images have captured the world, not to say he is the only such artist but just by far the most widely recognised. Perhaps one of his most controversial pieces depicts Queen Victoria as a lesbian, this provocative design which Banksy stencilled in various locations around London was swiftly removed. In contrast, Sam Tate (a.k.a. Smug), the man responsible for the Kelvin Bridge squirrel and modern St. Mungo amongst other works, has described his work as being for family people and for children. This approach to graffiti is probably what has eased Glasgow’s people into an acceptance of what once would have been considered vandalism. But on the other hand, I feel that Glasgow’s street art lacks some of Banksy’s protest and social commentary.
The fact that many pieces have been commissioned is unsurprising when you compared their imagery and messages to those of an artist like Banksy. They are playing it safe – the ‘U’s and ‘PG’s of the graffiti world. While crowd pleasing pieces that brighten up the city are valuable and enriching to the community, I hope that by allowing anyone and everyone access to the legal wall at SWG3, we will see some more street art that pushes boundaries and gives us something to really think about.
-Catrin Stephen, Design Editor