Oct 31, 2011

TREND | Reverse Graffiti

Paul "Moose" Curtis, London

Towels? Check. Shoe brushes? Check. Rubber gloves? Check. Water? Check. Alright, let’s go tag some walls. Wait, what?

Unlike the graffiti most people are familiar with seeing that cover up the walls around us, reverse graffiti, or “clean tagging”, does the opposite. Artists remove the dirt from the surface to create a negative image within the positive; it can be as simple as dragging your finger across a dirty car window to making elaborate stencils, taking the grime off the tunnel walls with high-pressure hoses. Sounds like a bit of a contradiction, don’t you think? Wasn't the point of graffiti to break the rules and to permanently mark one's "territory"? 

Paul "Moose" Curtis, San Francisco, California, 2008

Self-proclaimed “Professor of Dirt” and father of reverse graffiti, British graffiti artist Paul “Moose” Curtis, said the seed to reverse graffiti was implanted in his brain when he worked as a kitchen porter in a restaurant. While washing pots and pans, he noticed a dirty mark on the wall and decided to clean it off, only to make a bigger clean mark where the dirty mark once was. In order to get out of what he thought was a problem, Curtis decided to clean the entire wall. When he moved to Leeds, England, he noticed the contrast made when people would rub shoulders against the tiled walls around the city and decided to explore that contrast, creating reverse graffiti.

Along with his personal works, Curtis donates his time for a variety of charities and handpicked paid clients. In London, he created works for a campaign called Crisis, which was designed to draw attention to the problem of homelessness in the city. For Greenworks he created a mural of indigenous Californian vegetation on the Broadway Tunnel in San Francisco, California.

Alexandre Orion, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 2006
On a more overtly environmental bent, Brazilian artist, Alexandre Orion created a mural inside one of São Paulo’s underpasses in 2006. He creates a series of skulls by removing layers of black soot left on the walls, reminding drivers of the impact their emissions are having on the planet. He then reused the soot collected and painted with it on organic cotton canvas.

When talking about this mural, Environmental Graffiti’s Linda McCormick states,
“(While working on the mural), the Brazilian authorities were incensed but couldn’t actually charge him with anything so they instead cleaned the tunnel. At first they cleaned only the parts [Orion] had cleared, but after the artist switched to the opposite wall they decided they had to clean that too. In the end, the authorities decided to wash every tunnel in the city.” 

Dutch Ink, Sardine Run, KwaZulu-Natal, Africa, 2010

Taking an assignment to create a business plan and developing it into their dream agency, a group of four artists in South Africa launched Dutch Ink. Martin Pace, JP Jordaan, Stathi Kougianos, and Nick Ferreira work off each other’s creative energies and those of the environment around them, creating many works thought Durban and KwaZulu-Natal.

In their most recent work, Dutch Ink created their first major commercial piece for PlayEnergyDrink, in conjunction with a larger campaign called the Griffin Movement, where they scrubbed off the words, “The well-beaten path is not well, it’s beaten.” With Sardine Run, Dutch Ink felt that the Connanaught bridge packed cars into one lane, like a shoal of fish. The design lends itself to the motion of the car. While driving, it looks as though the fish are moving along with the driver, leading into the Umgeni river.

Removing of Alexandre Orion's skull mural 
Though these artists aren’t defacing walls, there have been cases where official have intervened and prohibited reverse graffiti. As mentioned before, Alexandre Orion was forced to stop removing soot by the authorities and had his mural “washed away.” In a talk at the Conference in Melbourne, Paul Curtis mentions that, while working on his piece for the Metropolitan Police, was stopped by the police and was asked to dirty the parts he cleaned in an effort to make his work less noticeable. In another incident, the council “washed” the only the parts Curtis worked on, not the entire wall. Curtis found this as a challenge, went back and created images around the areas that were washed off, calling it a collaboration.

So, is it right to prohibit reverse graffiti? I mean, since when is cleaning sidewalks and walls a crime? Reverse graffiti artists create these works to bring attention to how dirty our world is, to clean up the city and make it beautiful again. So, when authorities intervene and wash the rest of the wall, removing the image, are they achieving that goal of beautifying the city? Or are the authorities eliminating another way for people to express themselves?
“It’s re-facing, not defacing. Just restoring a surface to its original bits. It’s very temporary. It glows and twinkles, and then it fades away…Once you do this, you make people confront whether or not they like people cleaning walls or if they really have a problem with personal expression.” - Paul "Moose" Curtis

- Sarah Martinez


  1. I've always loved looking at graffiti and think this is such an interesting twist on it. I really enjoyed reading this post!

    -Alyshia Maynard

  2. I have never heard of this before! I really enjoyed reading this very original post. I don't really understand how the police could stop a person from cleaning a wall though?? That seems a little ridiculous to me!

    -Sara Beth Worcester

  3. I had fun reading your blog it was new, refreshing, and interested to read. Very different from other graffiti that we see in the streets. I Like the fact that its very natural graffiti but not in a way of some marking our world as territory when it belongs to everyone.

    -stephany garcia