The Heritagisation of Authorial Graffiti and Street Art
In this paper I aim to show the circumstances and ways in which authorial graffiti can be, or can be constructed as, cultural heritage. I start by analysing how non-political, aesthetic graffiti and street art are treated when they appear in the public space and on buildings protected as cultural heritage in Slovenia and elsewhere. I discuss spaces such as 5Pointz in New York and Metelkova in Ljubljana, as well as artists such as Invader, Lo Milo and The Miha Artnak. I then focus on openly political street artists who enjoy the status of artists in society, despite expressing explicit social criticism. I go on to discuss in more detail the conflicting views on how and whether political street art can be meaningfully documented, musealised or conserved in situ. I write about Bologna, Ljubljana’s Rog factory, Banksy and Blu. In conclusion, I urge heritage bodies to be receptive to the idea of creating high quality strategies for the heritagisation of graffiti and street art so as to reflect the richness and complexity of the field.
Is it possible to talk about the heritagisation of graffiti these days? Is anyone even advocating it? In his influential lecture, Whose Heritage?, Stuart Hall (2005 ) asks whose heritage we are really talking about when we talk about national or universal heritage, and argues that any list of cultural heritage is a reflection of powerful group interests. Heritage is never just the product of selective remembrance but, more importantly, of selective forgetting too. It reflects the ways in which those who do the remembering or forgetting (be they rulers, states, local authorities, curators, etc.) deploy their material power in addition to the symbolic power of editing, sorting, classifying and ranking to produce an interpretation that is then imposed through the authority of science, art, the education system, cultural institutions and the media.
Critical heritage studies (Littler, Naidoo 2005; Harrison 2013) emerged in the late 1990s, under the influence of cultural studies (see Du Gay et al. 1997; Debeljak et al. 2002; 2005; Stanković 2006), and caused quite a stir by drawing attention to the colonial, racist, sexist, homophobic and classist character of heritage and highlighting the tendency of experts to misrepresent heritage as something neutral, rather than the biased and even exploitative practice it is in reality. As a result – in theory, at least – the heritagisation of working class, racial, ethnic, religious, sexual and other minority cultures has become much more reflective and inclusive in recent decades, and it is now possible to talk seriously about the heritagisation of graffiti and graffiti cultural heritage, even if doing so still triggers an extraordinary range of reactions from professionals and public alike.
In this paper I differentiate between various ideal-type categories of graffiti and street art – political vs non-political, aesthetic vs non-aesthetic, authorial vs non-authorial – and also between graffiti and street art themselves (see Fajt, Velikonja 2006; Ross 2016; Velikonja 2022). Street art differs from graffiti in a number of ways: while graffiti writers usually confine themselves to words, street artists move beyond this, instead creating images of living beings, nature, imaginary landscapes, etc; while graffiti is always created using spray paint, street art often incorporates stickers, posters, adbusting (the subversion of advertising messages), street installations, etc; and where graffiti is mostly painted freehand, street art also uses tools such as brushes, stencils, knives, paper, printers, projectors, etc. Put simply, street art is a continuation of graffiti by other means.
Street art and many graffiti works are created by authors of varying degrees of recognisability who, like other visual artists, emphasise their authorship, be that by adding their signature, turning the work itself into a stylised version of their name, using a recurring motif, or adding a logo or website address. The art world is far more interested in authorial graffiti and street art than in its non-authorial counterparts, since the authorial kind is usually of a higher aesthetic quality: the anonymous creator of a graffiti slogan such as “Down with the government!” is more concerned with the immediate political impact of the written message than its artistry. It should be noted, however, that even authorial graffiti writers do not limit themselves to artistic creations but also paint tags and throw-ups (quickly rendered signatures) that traditional art professionals and the public rarely find any more pleasing than spray-painted political slogans. To simplify matters, however, we can say that authorial/aesthetic graffiti is characterised by artistry (graffiti images), while non-authorial/non-aesthetic graffiti is more about putting a message across (graffiti slogans). This paper will concentrate on the former.
Finally, I also distinguish between political and non-political authorial graffiti and street art, only classifying them as political if their creators have deliberately used them to express political views that are immediately obvious. I will therefore not venture into the interesting question of the extent to which any graffiti is inherently political or can actually be highly ideological despite its author’s claims to have no interest in ideology. Instead, I define graffiti and street art as political or non-political purely on the basis of the creator’s intention to express, or not, a clear political message.
Apolitical Aesthetes: from New York to Paris to Ljubljana
Like the difference between vandalism and art, the distinction between graffiti and street art may seem self-evident to the uninitiated, but it can nevertheless be paradoxical, complex and permeable. Local authorities generally differentiate between graffiti (which they often call vandalism) and street art. Graffiti is equated with damage to property and the devaluation of the local area, both materially and symbolically, whereas street art is prized as a means of revitalising run-down areas and adding value for investors. It is widely believed that the public strongly object to “ugly” graffiti (tags, throw-ups, political slogans, names of bands and sports teams), while wall paintings in the style of New Muralism, multi-colour pieces (short for skilfully executed graffiti masterpieces) or Banksyesque stencils (short for stencil graffiti) can coexist seamlessly with the everyday visual culture of enormous posters, neon signs, billboards and road signs.
However, the difference between graffiti vandalism and artistic street art is not always obvious. For example, we prosecute a Chinese tourist who wrote his name on an Egyptian temple, while graffiti left on that same temple by ancient Greek, Roman or Coptic visitors is protected, studied and celebrated (Baird, Taylor 2016:23). Furthermore, aesthetically conventional street art images can sometimes express highly unconventional political views and consequently incur harsh criticism or even removal. One such example was a realist-style mural on the Pekarna building in Maribor depicting the then Slovenian Prime Minister, Janez Janša, as a Nazi officer, which the local council had painted over (see Klipšteter 2020). By contrast, far from being accused of degrading the local area, a space completely covered in seemingly “ugly” graffiti may be given official protection as a site of exceptional cultural significance. In Prague, for example, the city council has been discussing protection for the John Lennon (graffiti) Wall for many years now; similar discussions have taken place in Melbourne; while the controversy surrounding 5Pointz, a former graffiti site in New York, became internationally notorious.
The 5Pointz case is fascinating. Although it might at first seem irrelevant to Slovenia, with a few tweaks to the details it could be the story of the outdoor graffiti gallery in Ljubljana’s famous art squat, the Metelkova Autonomous Cultural Centre (hereinafter “Metelkova”). The Wall of Fame at Metelkova actually consists of several walls (one bordering the garden of the Celica youth hostel; one across the street from the local Health Centre; and one at a right angle to them, facing the Kamnik-Savinja Alps) and is Ljubljana’s main graffiti site. It is extremely popular, with new graffiti appearing there almost daily. Most of it is non-political and created by members of a graffiti subculture that has been most influenced by the hip-hop scene. These graffitists, some of them more artistic and better known than others, simply paint their names on the Wall of Fame. To return to New York, however: the real estate investor Jerry Wolkoff purchased the building that would later become 5Pointz in 1973. Twenty years or so later (at about the time artists and activists began squatting Metelkova), he started renting out the rooms in it as art studios. With his permission, the exterior of the building was covered in graffiti, and it soon became one of the most famous street galleries in the world. When, by agreement with Wolkoff, the graffiti artist Meres One (real name Jonathan Cohen) started curating the murals, the building was renamed 5Pointz. (It was at about this time that the Metelkova Wall of Fame was created; previously, Ljubljana’s main illegal open-air gallery had been a huge painted wall along the southern section of the ring road (Zrinski 2004: 59).) However, in 2013 Wolkoff decided to demolish the 5Pointz building and replace it with a new apartment complex, something that met with fierce opposition from Meres One and the other graffiti artists. Despite the protests, Wolkoff had the graffiti painted over one night without prior warning, and a year or so later he had the whole building demolished. In 2017, when Wolkoff had already started building the new apartments, twenty-one authors of the destroyed graffiti art filed a federal lawsuit against him, and in 2018 a court ordered him to pay huge damages to them. In October 2020 the US Supreme Court rejected Wolkoff’s appeal against this ruling and ordered him to pay a total of $6.7 million in damages to the graffiti artists, $150,000 for each of the 45 artworks destroyed. The court was persuaded by the artists’ argument that the graffiti in question were actually important works of art, and reminded the public that it was protecting “the public interest in preserving the nation’s culture” in the strictest sense (see McGrail 2021: 638).
In reaching its judgment, the Supreme Court referenced the 1990 Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), which was the first US federal copyright law to protect the moral rights of visual artists (Damich 1990). VARA states that the authors of visual works of art that meet certain conditions have moral rights over them, regardless of who owns the artwork or its copyright. If the owner of a building has not obtained written confirmation from the graffiti artist that he or she waives this moral right, the graffiti artist can, under certain conditions, sue the owner of the artwork or the owner of the building for damage or destruction caused to their work. In the interests of protecting the national cultural heritage, VARA prohibits the destruction of authorial graffiti that meets certain conditions.
So far as I am aware, there is no equivalent legislation in Slovenia, but it does not follow from this that similar reasoning is entirely unknown here. As in the 5Pointz case, graffiti artists working on the Ljubljana Wall of Fame do so with the permission of its owner, the Municipality of Ljubljana (MOL), since it is included in the municipal list of seventeen legal graffiti locations (MOL 2022). The Wall of Fame still exists for now, but MOL want to demolish it and use the land for a new car park and an extension to the Celica hostel (Pirc 2021). The Metelkova artists and activists are protesting against this plan, stressing its cultural and artistic importance.
The argumentation in favour of preserving dedicated graffiti sites used in the 5Pointz case would seem to be just as valid in Slovenia as in the United States: the New York graffiti artists proved in court that their creations in the 5Pointz area were exceptional works of art of recognised stature (see Robinson 2000). Although VARA requires works to be of recognised stature, it does not define the term, leaving that to be decided on a case-by-case basis. In the 5Pointz case, the court confirmed that the graffiti artists’ works had been of recognised stature, since their excellence had previously been acknowledged by a relevant community, i.e. art experts: they had been treated as works of art in relevant academic discourse and in correspondence between art teachers, and had been included as works of art in various exhibitions and films and on the internet (Bonadio 2018: 97–98). As we know, art experts also regard many of the Metelkova graffiti creators as artists and rate their works as excellent.
Furthermore, the New York court also took into account the fact that the area around 5Pointz had become a visitor attraction, frequently attracting large numbers of tourists and schoolchildren, as well as film, television and advertising crews and graffiti and street artists from all over the world. This, too, sounds very much like Metelkova which, as Ljubljana’s street art and tourist Mecca, also regularly attracts all these same groups. The New York judge also dismissed one of Jerry Wolkoff’s main counterarguments, namely, that some of the murals in question had been intentionally created as temporary works and that ephemeral works cannot be protected. However, VARA specifically protects the moral rights of authors of both permanent and temporary artworks; and the judge pointed out that this was especially relevant in cases where the only thing that made the artwork transient was the building owner’s intention to remove it (Bonadio 2018: 98; McGrail 2021: 636). In short, the artistic character of artworks recognised as artistic by experts is not negated by their temporary character – and this, too, would appear to be a legitimate argument in the case of Metelkova, even if it is not enshrined in Slovenian law.
The 5Pointz case was the first in which a federal court ruled that the owner of a private property had violated the moral rights of graffiti artists by destroying their graffiti on that property without first obtaining their written consent (McGrail 2021: 643), but the number of such court hearings has risen in the US over the last five years, partly due to the extensive media coverage of the original case (McGrail 2021: 643; Brittain 2021). Bonadio describes three cases that came to court even before the final verdict in the 5Pointz case and in which damages were awarded to individual muralists because the building owners had not informed them that their works had been painted over (Bonadio 2018: 98–99). McGrail (2021: 643–646) describes two more recent cases from San Francisco and New York, while Jernudd (2021) writes about a third New York case in which graffiti writer Kaves (real name Michael McLeer) sued the New York Police Department for removing certain street creations without first checking whether or not they were legal, since VARA states that legal works of art cannot be removed without the consent of the authors. The legal profession also continues to dissect the 5Pointz judgment and the way it interprets VARA. At one extreme, lawyers view the ruling as problematic since it places the moral rights of visual artists above the rights of property owners, which include the right to destroy their own property, and thereby prevents owners from managing their property as they see fit (Thornley 2019). At the other extreme, lawyers argue that the ruling did not go far enough since, by the court’s interpretation, VARA only protects the moral rights of artists whose graffiti has achieved recognised stature among art professionals and not those of artists whose graffiti is simply valued by the local community, whether or not this accords with the professional view (McGrail 2021).
For the purposes of this paper, it is important to note that in some countries copyright legislation does provide protection for aesthetic graffiti artists and their work, and that this is at least partly in order to protect cultural heritage (or to “preserv[e] the nation’s culture,” as the New York court put it, since the graffiti works in that case were not on any official preservation list). This type of protection for graffiti is not limited either to copyright law or to North America. Some heritage bodies take the view that aesthetic authorial graffiti that does not express a direct political message should be covered by a heritage protection scheme. Merrill ([Merill 2015;2015: 375]]) notes that the most liberal bodies in this regard are to be found in Germany and Australia, where the preference is for graffiti artworks that have already survived for at least twenty years. In Melbourne, for example, murals by Mike Brown (Australian) and Keith Haring (American) have been added to the national cultural heritage register; in Aachen, federal heritage protection has been conferred on works by Klaus Paier (German); while in Leipzig, a stencil work by Blek le Rat (French) has been added to the Saxony state list of protected historical monuments.
The heritagisation of acclaimed street artists often goes hand in hand with the promotion of cities as tourist destinations, and Ljubljana is no exception in this. In 2021, its International Centre of Graphic Arts (MGLC) hosted Invader, an internationally acclaimed, apolitical street artist from Paris, for the second time. Interestingly, to all intents and purposes MOL effectively legalised Invader’s street creativity by allowing him to place his ceramic mosaics on the walls of the city while his graphic work was being exhibited at MGLC. In addition, the city’s Tourist Office promoted him publicly as a star of Ljubljana’s street art scene and created a guided tour in his honour, entitled Invader in Ljubljana, available every Friday (Visit Ljubljana 2022).
When Invader first “invaded” Ljubljana, in 2006, he was still relatively unknown outside specialist circles and was working as part of a group rather than solo, and in a much more obviously illegal way than today, gluing generic space invaders to walls in 20 x 15 cm format. The mosaics from his second stint in Ljubljana are much larger, more diverse in form, more spatially specific, and thematically and symbolically linked to local attractions such as the Castle and the Dragon Bridge. The success of the cooperation between the city and the street artist can be seen most clearly in his pixelated ceramic Ljubljanan coat of arms and Ljubljana dragon, which can be found on two sides of a building in Pod Trančo, one of the busiest pedestrian areas in the heart of the old city. The fact that the city authorities allowed these street art interventions in the otherwise strictly regulated and protected Old Town (albeit they seem to have no problem with shamelessly garish advertising billboards) is an interesting step towards the Slovenian heritagisation of works by this famous French street artist. MOL presumably did not intend this move to be about elevating any old street art to the status of legitimate high culture but simply wanted to acknowledge a specific artist of world renown, but all the same, this gesture has certainly contributed to the gradual heritagisation of street art in general.
MOL is of course very far from indiscriminately supporting all street creativity, however aesthetic and non-political it may be. Take the spot by the Hradecky pedestrian bridge where the Gradaščica River flows into the Ljubljanica, for example. It has pleasing views towards the Castle on one side and the Trnovski Pristan terraced embankment (designed by renowned Slovenian architect Jože Plečnik) on the other, as well as of prominent concrete walls along the waterfront that are perfect for visual interventions. Had you happened to glance in the direction of the terraced embankment in the summer of 2018, you might have noticed an installation by the versatile Slovenian artist and street artist, The Miha Artnak, on the wall beneath the bridge. Entitled No Head No Tail, it depicted a magnificent snake with both its head and its tail cut off, glued together from hundreds of CDs that rainbow-sparkled in the sun and the water. It remained there for a month or two before being suddenly removed in its entirety without any kind of warning. Likewise, in the spring of the following year, the Ljubljanan post-graffiti artist Lo Milo created a superb, politically undefined abstract mural on the adjacent wall, using colours that blended perfectly with its setting. Even before people became fully aware of it, camouflaged as it was, it was removed by the graffiti cleaning company contracted by the city council. This happened to other street art and graffiti art at this location too, but I particularly want to highlight the Lo Milo and Artnak cases because, unlike the others, they were beautifully crafted and artistic, as well as wholly apolitical.
In 2021 Invader glued one of his mosaics to the Hradecky Bridge – and there it has remained ever since, lending a touch of modern urbanity to the almost bucolic view to the Castle from the Krakovski Nasip embankment. There was never any public discussion about an aesthetic hierarchy of street artists and their works in this tiny section of the public space and yet, in practice, one was established all the same: somewhere along the chain of responsibility running from the mayor’s office to a particular graffiti cleaner, a decision was taken about which of these apolitical pieces of art should be removed and which should be allowed to remain. Why were Lo Milo, Artnak and Invader not considered equals? Why was Invader given preferential treatment? Was it because he was exhibiting legally at the municipal gallery at the same time as he was working illegally at night? Leaving aside the question as to whether MOL did or did not give Invader a list of authorised sites, it is surely clear that, in practice, they de facto “legalised” all the sites he worked at by subsequently giving his interventions their blessing and promoting them by means of an official guided tour.
Can we expect MOL to effectively “legalise” local street artists who meet certain aesthetic criteria and allow them to beautify the architectural heritage of Ljubljana in future – or will that privilege only be accorded to proven celebrities from outside Slovenia? Either way, it will be interesting to see what happens at the sites of Invader’s street art over the coming months: which graffiti and street artists will the city’s graffiti removers allow to place their works in these effectively “legalised” street art spaces? And what kind of relationship will develop between these newer works and those by Invader? Will it be a peaceful juxtaposition or a hostile attack with the intention of damaging the original work? Might the location become completely covered in graffiti, to the point where Invader’s original mosaic is destroyed? We shall see.
Political aesthetes: from Bristol to Bologna to Ljubljana
Clearly, the authorities do accept that some graffiti and street art qualifies as art and cultural heritage. So far I have been discussing street art and street artists that are not overtly political and ideological, but I will now turn my attention to what we might term political aesthetes, including the giant of Italian street art, Blu, who uses his art as a means of spreading his political views while also being hailed by art historians and critics for his exceptional visual artistry. First, though, I will take a moment to talk about the superstar Banksy, who has rather a lot in common with Blu, since he, too, is no stranger to politics and is also held in high regard by art historians; in addition, they both choose to conceal their true identity, both mostly work on unauthorised surfaces, and both refuse commissions.
It has become obvious that Banksy’s creations, not unlike Milton Glaser’s I♥NY sign, have become part of mainstream culture. Regardless of whether its social criticism is implicit or explicit, his work is often given official protection as soon as it appears, even, for example, when it overtly supported London’s Extinction Rebellion protesters (Keep, Dracott 2019), whom police had described as extremists (Dodd, Grierson 2020). In that instance, his openly anti-government and anti-system image of a rebellious girl was preserved by none other than London’s Westminster City Council. Sometimes property owners move Banksy’s works from their original sites, either because they want to sell them or (less often) because they want to preserve them for the benefit of the wider community. His Grim Reaper, for example, was originally painted onto an anchored ship but is now in the permanent collection of the M Shed museum in Bristol. Could this kind of thing happen in Slovenia too? Yes, it could, and it nearly did.
In the summer of 2016 a huge mural of a pink-and-red gun appeared on the façade of the Rog factory, the only other artistic and political squat in Ljubljana besides Metelkova at that time. It was created by the above-mentioned Blu, from Bologna, in support of the users of the factory building, who were being threatened with eviction by the Ljubljanan authorities. Even though the mural was created in only semi-illegal conditions, which meant that Blu was able to work reasonably freely, graffiti researcher Helena Konda (2017: 176) saw it as an excellent example of critical political street art conveying a clear activist message despite the deliberate absence of slogans. The gun was pointed towards the city centre, location of the City Hall, seat of the municipal government (MOL) and office of the long-time mayor, Zoran Janković. On closer inspection, however, it became clear that it was not actually an image of a firearm as such, but a collection of many different non-threatening objects (a guitar, a book, a microphone, a megaphone, etc.), all assembled into the shape of a gun. The message of the mural could be interpreted locally as, “We Rog squatters are creative and peaceful, but if MOL treads on our toes we will stand up for ourselves”, but it could also be read more universally, as a statement of solidarity with the global rebellious multitude: “We squatters will always cultivate creative pacifism on the inside, while resolutely defending ourselves against political and capitalist pressures from the outside.”
Blu’s gun sits perfectly with the rest of his oeuvre, which is characterized by criticism of the structural social anomalies within capitalism, war profiteering, the commodification of social relations, growth economics, greedy urban investors, insatiable bankers, brainwashed Yes men, and so on. It was therefore surely no mere play on words when he chose to call the book of his collected wall paintings Minima muralia (Blu 2018), but a clear nod to Marxist philosopher Theodor Adorno’s Minima moralia (2007 ), an influential collection of reflections on the total decay of Western capitalist societies.
The violent eviction of the Rog factory squatters one icy January morning in 2021 and the resulting municipal takeover of the management of the factory building, complete with Blu’s mural, must also be viewed in this light. The pink-and-red gun was never just the work of a great artist, but also of a great left-wing activist. It is no coincidence that the many motifs of which the pistol is composed include a pair of iron scissors cutting a barbed-wire fence, an obvious allusion to the “crimmigrating” (Stumpf 2006; Franko Aas 2011; Franko 2019) attitude of the Slovenian authorities towards refugees and migrants on the border with Croatia. Moreover, the gun was a call to defend not just the squat but also the very wall on which it was painted, which was due to be demolished under the new plans for the factory. And indeed, in the summer of 2021 that demolition went ahead.
Art professionals sometimes overlook this activist aspect when analysing Blu’s work. In 2016, for example, when the Rog mural was still in the process of being created, local art critic Marijan Zlobec informed the public that a “world-class work of graffiti art” was being created in Ljubljana by the Picasso of our time, no less, one of the ten most important street artists in the world, who was painting a Colt while dangling on a rope like a “caver or mountaineer” (Zlobec 2016). Unfortunately, Zlobec’s otherwise helpful photo reportage on the technical implementation and production of the mural failed to mention the specific activist context in which it was being created, even though it was this very context that made it necessary for Blu to paint it as though he were a caver or mountaineer, rather than openly, like a house-painter. This aesthetic treatment of the mural, avoiding any mention of Blu’s activism, was also evident in art experts’ responses to press reports that MOL did not yet know what the ultimate fate of the Rog mural would be but that it could not remain where it was. The key question on the minds of the local art world and MOL was whether or not the mural was a work of art that merited preservation. In February 2021 the Dnevnik newspaper reported that MOL was considering moving the graffiti to a new location but that this would cost nearly 100,000 euros and they were therefore planning to consult graffiti experts on whether or not it would be justified (Rokavec 2021). Six months later MOL decided against the relocation and that the mural would be demolished along with the wall. And this then happened, in August 2021. According to a Dnevnik reporter, “The Municipality was apparently unable to raise the €90,000 required to move the graffiti to another location” (Šum 2021).
When footage of the destruction of the mural came to light, art historian Miklavž Komelj (2021) posted publicly on Facebook asking how MOL could “chuck away a real high point of modern street art” in exchange for a “stupid, sterile extension”. In a comment beneath his post, he added that this was a “terrible” act and “basically the destruction of cultural heritage”. He described Blu as “one of the world’s best artists doing so-called street art” and “a genuinely top quality author in the field”. In reply to someone who had asked whether it would have been possible to restore the dilapidated wall without destroying or covering over the mural, Komelj firmly replied that it would of course have been possible to do that instead of simply demolishing this part of the building. He added that he had no objection to the renovation as such and that it was “even necessary”, but that MOL “could have been more flexible and tried to preserve a work of real quality”. Some of his readers disagreed with his assessment. “When [Jože] Plečnik’s stadium is in danger of collapsing, why should we care about a pistol, well, revolver, by some guy called Blu,” wrote one of them, who clearly had strong views on heritage priorities (and the terminology of weaponry). Art critic and curator Brane Kovič mocked the idea that the mural was a “great work of art”, adding that “notoriety is not yet a measure of quality” and pointing out that the cost of preserving the mural was rather high, given that the Ministry of Culture normally only allocated “€40,000 a year to the Modern Gallery for purchases!” He ended by addressing the issue of public vs private funding for conservation, asking why “the thousands of people who enthusiastically supported Rog (y compris this great work of art)” had not raised the funds for the relocation themselves instead of just complaining after the event. At first glance, this kind of self-organisation might seem like a good idea, but even if some of the Rog squatters had thought of it, street art practitioners (unlike their institutional counterparts) would have been very reluctant to support it, since they would have been aware of the complexities involved in transferring graffiti to galleries, museums and private collections, and in this specific case they would also have been aware of Blu’s dismissiveness towards such conservation attempts in the past.
According to Cascone (2016) and Pavoni (2021), over the course of a single weekend in March 2016 – so just a few months before he came to Ljubljana to paint the Rog factory – Blu and supporters painted over all his murals in Bologna in a monotone grey, thereby withholding from the public the results of two decades of work. The mayor of Bologna responded by lamenting the diminishment of the city resulting from the loss of its spaces for freedom and art, which seemed rather hypocritical, given the city authorities’ restrictive policies – up to and including evictions – towards alternative groups and graffiti artists. Blu’s campaign, which also included a letter of protest, was carefully planned as a demonstration against both the processes of gentrification and the conservationist appropriation of his works by local curators and museum staff, who for several months had been removing his graffiti from walls and applying them to new surfaces using a sophisticated fresco conservation technique. Those same professionals responded by claiming that they had acted from the best of motives; that they had just wanted to protect the works from deterioration and preserve them for posterity; that they had the legal authority to do this; that Blu had not responded to their written requests for cooperation; and (not unimportantly), that they had done it because they had the funding for it – private funding, to be precise.
The murals were moved a few hundred metres away, to the Palazzo Pepoli, where they were included in a group exhibition called Street Art: Banksy & Co. – L’Arte allo Stato Urbano [Art in the Urban State] that was being staged by the museum group Genus Bononiae with financial support from Carisba (the most powerful banking foundation in the city) and its former president (and highly influential local mogul and patron), Fabio Roversi Monaco. The exhibition opened on 18 March 2016, less than a week after Blu painted over his remaining murals and issued a press release stating that, more than any other in the recent history of Bologna, the name of Roversi Monaco symbolised the power, wealth and repressiveness of politicians who criminalised graffiti as vandalism and violently cleared the alternative and youth spaces where graffiti artists created their work, while at the same time portraying themselves in local museums as the saviours of street art. Blu accused the Bologna elites of behaving like colonial governors, not only expropriating art from public spaces in the interests of a handful of collectors and art dealers, but also relentlessly commodifying, securitising and gentrifying the city, and he concluded that the only option left to graffiti artists was to erase their work, since this was the only way to prevent the fruits of their creativity falling into the hands of the rich.
It would be patronising to contradict Blu in this, tantamount to claiming that the artist and his activist allies do not understand the public’s need for high-quality art and that, by depriving the public of it, they are defeating their own left-wing ideology, which emphasises the welfare of the masses. To side with him, though, would mean rethinking the extent to which graffiti is not just art but also a form of sub-political and sub-cultural communication; not just tangible but also intangible culture; not just material spatiality, but also spiritual temporality. As the graffitologist Mitja Velikonja points out in his recent book (2022), graffiti activity should not just be considered at the level of the resulting object but also at the level of its reception (the ways in which graffiti are consumed by different audiences, be that resigned passers-by, interested tourists, or curators) and the level of its production (the author’s identity, ideological orientation, artistic and political intent, planning process, physical execution, etc.).
Viewed from this angle, it is ironic that Blu’s Rog factory mural – widely seen as a criticism of the gentrification and touristification of Ljubljana – itself contributed to a significant increase in the number of street art fans, both foreign and domestic, visiting the city. Pavoni (2021: 163–164) draws attention to this contradictory effect, pointing out that graffiti is easily absorbed by the tourism industry and urban branding initiatives, thereby diluting its potential for subversion, even if it has been created illegally. This is especially true in the case of authorial or aesthetically pleasing graffiti. Thus, paradoxically, graffiti protesting against tourism and gentrification can itself become a tool of touristification and gentrification. The mere fact of its illegality does not give graffiti any greater emancipatory value, as can be clearly seen in the way marketing professionals regularly include transgressive graffiti in corporate, district and city branding. In summary, then, we can say that left-leaning members of the public who would have preferred Blu’s works to be preserved in situ, on the walls of “our city”, have overlooked the fact that the economic, political and urban transformations of the last few decades have led to many cities becoming more “theirs” than “ours”. Spatial specificity should therefore not be seen as an essential quality of graffiti and street art that must be defended at all costs, since property investors can easily frame such works as “typical” or “local” and then incorporate them into their commercial plan. The key thing we should be focusing on is the way in which the class, social and cultural character of graffiti and street art spaces changes over time, as well as the changes in the relationships between those spaces and the graffiti and street art that appear in them. If, as Velikonja (2022) would argue, street art transposed to the gallery becomes mere art, then even highly political street art can become mere decoration if the character of the streets changes sufficiently.
In short, it seems that MOL simply could not win where Blu’s mural was concerned. Transferring it to a new space and medium would almost certainly have met with protests from Blu and his supporters; but even if they had left it in situ and simply restored the wall it was on, thereby incorporating it into their new plans for the Rog factory, they would probably have been accused of illegitimate appropriation and the mural would almost certainly have been painted over or damaged by protestors. Either way, the artist himself would probably have viewed any official conservation of his socially critical work as a form of kidnapping and subjugation. If we wish to take a Critical Heritage Studies stance rather than a patronising traditionalist one, it seems only logical to speak out against any appropriative conservation of Blu’s murals that he himself, as a political artist and activist, would deem inappropriate. Any transfer of an original artwork to a new medium always involves both de- and re-contextualisation, so if we want to ensure that both the progressive potential and the critical core of Blu’s murals are preserved, it is essential that any such transfer takes place on his terms, or not at all. In this sense, both the reproduction of his entire oeuvre in his self-published book, Minima muralia, and the reproductions of his pink-and-red pistol on the Rog squatters’ posters and stickers preserve his political stance virtually intact. The same cannot be said of any possible museum-like appropriation or preservation of the mural in situ on the wall of Center Rog, the new municipal cultural institution now based in the refurbished Rog factory. Whether by reproducing his art or by destroying it, Blu successfully exposes the contradictions of modern capitalist societies. It can therefore be said that the most important contributor to the heritagisation of his art … is Blu himself.
Ever since the 1970s, UNESCO and other heritage bodies have represented the interests of architects, archaeologists and ancient historians who define heritage as a special class of cultural objects, locations and activities whose significance can only be determined by experts (Harrison 2013: 63). However, the omnipresence of popular culture in society and an increased sense of empowerment to perform tasks that were once the preserve of an elite have led to the increasing heritagisation of objects, locations and activities that hold particular significance for the general public. Just as the art world has long encompassed amateur art lovers as well as qualified art professionals, qualified professionals in the field of cultural heritage have also been joined by heritage enthusiasts or even guerrilla conservators (see Bulc 2022) consistently pursuing the heritagisation of “their own” culture.
The rise of Cultural Studies and Critical Heritage Studies has been accompanied by the arrival of a new breed of experts who are shifting the boundaries of cultural heritage away from the elitist centre and towards the popular periphery. Experts in Cultural Studies and Critical Heritage Studies are increasingly finding their way into educational and decision-making positions, where they are letting fresh air into traditional heritage circles and acting as elite allies of the general public in deciding which aspects of the cultural past and cultural present should be professionally interpreted and validated (i.e. remembered or forgotten). Ultimately, this must lead to the heritagisation of graffiti and street art or, at least, to discussions (such as this one) about their heritagisation, both of which contribute to new ways of democratising social relations that can take their place alongside the democratisation processes in political decision-making and media communication. The heritagisation of graffiti and street art expands the range of objects, locations and activities with the potential to be considered heritage to dimensions that until recently would have been wholly unthinkable.
At the same time, as we have seen, this kind of democratisation also raises many questions and dilemmas. In which cultural and social contexts can we justifiably talk about graffiti and street art as being works of art? Or define them as an important part of national or even universal culture? Or protect them as cultural heritage? Which works of graffiti and street art merit conservation? Does graffiti have to be acknowledged as art before it can become heritage? How should graffiti and street art be conserved? Should we be focusing on the heritagisation of the activity of graffiti (intangible heritage) or the resulting artefacts (tangible heritage)? Given the ephemerality of graffiti and, to a lesser extent, street art, should heritage bodies be focusing more on documenting street creativity rather than conserving it in situ? And crucially: who exactly are the experts when it comes to graffiti heritage? What kind of qualifications, professional training and experience should be required in order to make decisions about the conservation of graffiti and street art? Should these decisions be taken by experts in Cultural Studies and Critical Heritage Studies specialising in these areas, or by someone else?
Such questions are rarely answered adequately even by heritage specialists, let alone the local authorities that have to deal with the painted, scratched and postered walls, underpasses, embankments and bridges in practice. We therefore need heritage bodies to be bold and innovative, as well as receptive to the new knowledge provided by specialists in Critical Heritage Studies, who are used to thinking about graffiti and street art in this context. Even though I have been focusing only on the authorial variety, which is just the tip of the iceberg, it is clear from the examples and issues discussed in this paper that the field of graffiti and street art heritagisation is both diverse and complex. How does heritagisation fit with non-authorial and non-aesthetic graffiti that takes no interest in conventional aesthetics? Or with graffitied exclamations, appeals, slogans, threats, toilet poems, sports team support, aphorisms, outpourings of love, vulgarisms, etc.? Do we even dare to contemplate heritagisation in that context? In conclusion, then, I would urge specialists in Cultural Studies and Critical Heritage Studies, along with other heritage professionals, to engage more fully with graffiti and street art creativity. This would enable them to respond far more effectively to the challenges posed by the creators of graffiti and street art of varying quality than has been the case to date. Like it or not, graffiti writers and street artists are creating highly relevant culture and art, and heritage bodies need to engage more fully with this pool of knowledge and creativity if they are to be able to properly advise local authorities on the creation of constructive, participatory and inclusive strategies for graffiti and street art, and the complex methods of evaluation, promotion and of course heritagisation that need to go with them.
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- I would like to thank Mitja Velikonja, the editors of Heriskop, and the anonymous peer reviewers for their comments on the first draft of this article. I am also grateful to Emina Frljak for her suggestions on the use of conservation terminology. And last but not least, I would like to thank Paula Kirby for editing my English translation.
- As in the art world, aesthetics plays an ambiguous role in the world of authorial graffiti and street art. In line with Becker (1984), Bourdieu (1996) and Danto (1997), I understand the art world as being a complex system of interconnected stakeholders at all levels: ministries of culture, public museums, private gallerists, private collectors, artists and art students. It is a system still dominated by agreed aesthetic conventions, be that in relation to established styles such as Impressionism, Surrealism or Pop Art, or simple pleasing decorativeness. But, as we know from the science of aesthetics, aesthetic value is a highly complex phenomenon and cannot always be equated with what is pleasing to the eye or the ear, much less with what is attractive, lovely, popular or commercially successful. If we peek inside a conceptual art exhibition space, for example, we will be struck by the absence of conventionally beautiful objects. And all this applies to the world of authorial graffiti and street art, too, which also comprises numerous stakeholders and is dominated by agreed aesthetic conventions in the form of the various graffiti styles and techniques. However, the aesthetic value of graffiti cannot be judged solely on its final aesthetic appearance (its content and form), but also on its concept (its communicativeness, uniqueness, interactivity, etc.), as well as on its production context (location, risk incurred, etc.). Like the art world, the world of authorial graffiti and street art is dominated by the celebration of a few big names, a situation that has been largely brought about by authorial graffiti writers and street artists themselves, since they tend to think of themselves as talented artists, special personalities and, as it were, walking brands. The graffiti crews in which they work are also viewed within the subculture as artistic collectives, organised teams of authors, ingenious brands. In this sense, too, the art world and the world of authorial graffiti are clearly homologous.
- To use a recent example, in Stephen Merchant’s latest TV comedy, The Outlaws (2021), he comic effect of the final scene is achieved by having an elderly misfit (Christopher Walken) on mandatory Community Service nonchalantly whitewash a Banksy rat, wholly unaware of either its market or heritage value.
- If graffiti writers do not share their production documentation publicly, it is very hard to gain any insight into the practice of graffiti and the way of life it entails. This is why Zlobec’s photo documentation of Blu at work is so very valuable. Precisely because graffiti is so ephemeral, graffiti artists diligently document their activity in photographs and video without any of the pomp associated with heritage, but however we look at it, the process they use for this is wholly homologous with that used in the field of cultural heritage. Interestingly, in the winter of 2021 a photographic exhibition in Poland chose to focus entirely on the process of graffiti production and to exclude the finished works altogether. As the official invitation pointed out, “The final effect – tag, throw-up or panel – is the result of a long process that includes preparation, sketching, planning, location-checking, waiting and, only at the very end, the actual act of painting” (Layup 2021). This is why some graffitologists argue that graffiti activity should be recognised as intangible, rather than tangible, cultural heritage.