‘You see here? It’s part of a graffiti work,’ explained my friend while showing me her collection of fridge magnets from around the world. ‘A shame it isn’t the entire piece and I can’t tell what the message was sprayed on the wall. But I imagine it’s something to do with freedom and taking down the wall.’ She was holding a piece of concrete with faded paint on one side and mounted to a magnet on the other. A small plaque attached underneath says ‘Berlin Wall fragment’, indicating its origin and history.
How apt, I thought, that a genre born out of the countercultural movement to dismantle the wall between art institutions and popular culture becomes the face of a wall whose symbolic power resides in its demolition. And how interesting, that despite the historic fall, the wall’s power to separate still defines the existence of street art today.
More than just physical boundaries, the graffiti wall highlights the demarcation of something more invisible in our society. We have high culture contained within the interior space of galleries or museums, and popular culture largely left to roam on the streets to hunt for canvases; there is also the ideological freedom of the West testified by a stretch of provocative street art on the western side of the Berlin Wall, to contrast starkly with the once barren wall on the east.
But what is more remarkable about this form of artistic expression is that time and again, it shows us how permeable the borders are, visible or otherwise. Scholars believe that the Roman poet Catullus might have stolen some of his best lines from the latrine walls to use in his more aggressive poems; while in modern day Hong Kong, King of Kowloon Tsang Tsou-choi appropriated a formal style of calligraphy to assert his alleged imperial lineage.
Today, graffiti has expanded its scope beyond mere spraying of stylised tags on public walls or subway trains – it can be anything from stencil paintings, wheatpasted posters, to stickers and installations that commandeer public surface or space.
For French street artist Space Invader, the liberation of art goes beyond the confines of gallery walls. Taking a step further, he brings the video game Space Invaders into our physical world, materialises the 8-bit pixelated alien character intoceramic tiles, and then glues them onto the wall. He started putting up mosaic invaders on walls around Paris in the mid-1990s, and since then his repertoire has expanded to include more elaborate mosaic designs of popular characters such as Pink Panther, Popeye and Spiderman.
Invader calls each ‘operation’ an invasion, and so far he has invaded 61 cities in 30 countries with more than 3,000 works spanning five continents. From São Paulo to Mombasa, from Visby to Tokyo, Invader reclaims public walls in densely populated urban areas while keeping score of each successful invasion and documenting them carefully. At one point he invaded Jacques Chirac’s lapel using a tiny ‘1-point’ sticker. In 2012, he decided to further disrupt the idea of boundaries by expanding his territories to include the depths of the Cancùn Bay and the stratosphere at about 35 kilometres above ground.
As a genre, street art is deeply influenced by the culture of guerrilla tactics and territorial war, making it inherently mobile and context specific. As one of its game changers, the French mosaic artist constantly stays on top of these movements, invading areas that are least expected, and relentlessly amplifying the porous quality of the walls that mark the frontiers of different realms. More than ten years after he took pixels out of the virtual world to hack our physical space, on 10th June 2011 he reinvaded the digital space and launched a virus against the servers of French newspaper Libération, making all the letter ‘A’ appear as a Space Invaders symbol. He also placed street art back into the pantheon of high art and invaded the Louvre with ten installations. Perhaps most significantly, he further blurred the boundary between public and private space when he decorated King of Kowloon’s palatial wall in Kwun Tong in return for the emperor’s manuscript scrawled upon a map of Hong Kong showing invasion locations.
King of Kowloon died in 2007 without a successor and his former palace is now another ordinary flat in a public estate. The walls are probably whitewashed and the space invader installation removed. Back on the streets, the government put plastic shields around the handful of his remaining works that had escaped official extermination. But not all Invader’s works get the same treatment. In 2014, the Hong Kong government took down some of his installations in various locations, including the Hong Kong Phooey piece, which pays tribute to Hong Kong’s Kung Fu movie industry.
As for the Berlin Wall, ‘They’ve kept sections of its graffiti in situ,’ mused my friend, ‘but god knows when they’ll be reduced to rubble.’
‘That’s part of the deal with graffiti,’ I said, ‘either erased by man or destroyed by nature. That’s why graffiti artists always move around for new canvases.’
‘Well, I don’t know how it can be done technically, but wouldn’t it be cool to actually own a piece of graffiti? Make the canvas moveable!’
Yes, that’d be cool. And perhaps the alias that Invader produces for each invasion is meant to break the final wall between street art and fine art – the former’s ephemerality and the ideal of immortality.