Years ago when I first started wearing contact lens, the first thing I noticed was dirt. My previous blurred vision had rather pleasantly eradicated the chewing gum splodges and dusty layers of the standard pathway, alongside other more important features. With perfect eyesight, the world with all its detail and imperfections became evident. Now, years later and fully acclimatised to the totality of London’s grime and darkened surfaces, I barely even pause to think what the buildings, roads and walls might have looked like when new. The fact that the grand, white facades of the typical “London townhouse” – those in Kensington for example, require annual repainting highlights the constant battle of dirt vs. cleanliness, the underdog.
One of my current “likes” (to give it a facebook thumbs up) is subsequently reverse graffiti, where temporary or semi permanent images are created by removing dirt from a surface – the dirty van with the words “clean me” scribbled onto a window being the most basic example. However, reverse graffiti has now mushroomed to become a fully commercialised “clean advertising” venture; designed to engage with consumers in an unconventional way and also tap into “corporate social responsibility” good intentions through being green.
I first spotted it at the Edinburgh Festival, where walking amidst the crowds and flyers, I caught sight of an advert on the pavement. This was memorable in two ways – first that I could not help but absorb the content as I strolled over it (a full birds eye view), and second that I tried to work out how the advert was achieved in the process (walking rather slowly). Reverse graffiti is subsequently effective because it relies on the contrast between the dirt and the image itself (startingly clean), with the lack of chemicals, ink or any form of artificiality drawing attention to the environment. The subject of the advert is therefore positioned as something natural, and refreshingly alternative – a discovery amongst the litter and signature graffiti scrawls.
The English artist Paul Curtis (aka Moose) was one of the first street artists to make an art piece with reverse graffiti – making dirt, or its absence, eye-catching and part of the urban-beautiful. While he describes himself as a “professor of dirt” in this documentary on the Reverse Graffiti Project in San Francisco, I like to think of him of more of a magician, armed with a super-powered hose. I love the unconventionality of reverse graffiti, how in the process of removing dust and dirt, you become conscious of that dust and the dirt in the first place, and the end product is much more – one minus one equals two. Reverse graffiti also challenges the perception of graffiti itself, as who could condemn a “cleaner”? Thus, with urbanisation predicted to continue increase, maybe there is one little positive amongst all that added dirt and pollution. I have a sudden urge to put my cleaning gloves on.