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reverse graffiti

noun [uncountable]

a method of drawing or writing on walls and other surfaces in public places by removing dirt from them

'The technique, known as reverse graffiti, is popping up in cities around the world. Curtis removes the dirt, grime and pollution that people are so accustomed to seeing and replaces it with something he thinks is becoming scarcer: nature.'

San Francisco Examiner 16th July 2010

In the midst of the grime and pollution of the inner city, a new kind of art form is popping up, and the artist's tools are rather unconventional. Forget spray paint in bright colours, and think soap and scrubbing brushes. This is a clean-up that deliberately 'misses bits' in the name of creativity, and it goes by the name of reverse graffiti.

if you've ever had that mildly irritating experience of someone etching 'wash me' with their finger on a surface that you haven't had chance to clean, you'll understand how reverse graffiti works

If you've ever had that mildly irritating experience of someone etching 'wash me' with their finger on a surface that you haven't had chance to clean, you'll understand how reverse graffiti works. Artists simply take soap, water and a brush to grimy urban surfaces, and create images by scrubbing their way through the blackened mess. Carefully executed strokes enable them to draw by creating a contrast between clean and dirty parts of the surface. If you'd like to see some examples of reverse graffiti around the world, check out this link, which features reverse graffiti on walls, car windscreens and road signs. Larger or more intricate examples can take hours or even days to perfect, and may involve the use of stencils and high powered pressure washers.

This novel form of producing art has a strong environmental message. Firstly, it doesn't involve the use of paint, ink or paper. Secondly, and perhaps more significantly, there's an ecological resonance in its temporariness – over time, build-up of dirt will cause it to fade, giving a clear demonstration of the effects of pollution in the atmosphere.

Not surprisingly, companies have been quick to catch on to the marketing potential of reverse graffiti, with big corporations such as Microsoft and Smirnoff using it to advertise their products. In this sense then there's a link between reverse graffiti and the concept of guerrilla advertising – using thought-provoking, unconventional advertising techniques in unusual but highly visible locations. In an attempt to highlight its eco-friendliness, use of reverse graffiti for promotional purposes is often referred to as clean advertising.

Background – reverse graffiti

The concept of reverse graffiti has been around for the past ten years or so, and the expressions clean tagging, dust tagging and grime writing are also sometimes used to refer to the same concept. Its main pioneer is UK artist Paul Curtis, who often goes by the pseudonym Moose. Curtis' work has sparked a fair bit of debate, some admiring it as art, and others decrying it as vandalism. On occasions Curtis has faced the threat of prosecution but, so far, hasn't had a case made successfully against him since, as he points out himself, 'no-one owns the dirt'. More recently Curtis has gone commercial by creating eco-friendly advertising company Symbollix, which has been hired by a number of large companies (Coca-Cola, Smirnoff, UK's Channel 4 and Microsoft) for their publicity campaigns.

Graffiti is a loan word from Italian, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century and based on graffio meaning 'a scratch'. Though graffiti is strictly speaking a plural form (with singular form graffito), its use in contemporary English is as a mass (uncountable) noun, which takes a singular verb as in e.g.: The graffiti was all over the walls.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 20th September 2010.

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