Seattle, 2022. BC
This year’s Sundance Film Festival has a bunch of great movies. There’s a new Princess Diana doc that uses archival footage to create a dreamlike account of Diana’s life, which will be released on HBO Max later this summer. There is also a simple and moving film about a black Brazilian family living under the Bolsonaro administration. And then there is fire of lovethe documentary narrated by Miranda July about two volcanologists in love that National Geographic Documentary Films picked up for around seven figures.
But it’s another film told by Miranda July that struck me the most this year.
Short film by filmmaker Matt McCormick the subconscious art of graffiti removal, which is screening at the Northwest Film Forum this Sunday as part of its Sundance package, is twenty years old, but it took me a second to figure it out. His subject – graffiti removal – is as relevant to 2002 as it is to today, as those who have followed Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell’s mayoral campaign can tell you.
Narrated by Miranda July and inspired by the work of Avalon Kalin, McCormick’s film makes the fun argument that removing graffiti is its own kind of “subconscious art,” with origins in minimalism and expressionism. abstract. The basic idea is that graffiti removal also becomes a type of art placed on cities, with graffiti “removers” making artistic choices themselves, albeit unconsciously.
Kalin began documenting graffiti removal in the Pacific Northwest in the late 90s after his father noted that many graffiti removals “looked like Rothkos”. If you’ve seen an ugly discolored rectangle hovering over the side of a building, which you have if you’ve ever walked around a city, then you know what his dad was talking about.
Conversations about graffiti usually focus on the “taggers” doing the work, and especially how that work relates to anti-graffiti laws and land ownership. During these conversations, people often mention (as Bruce Harrell did) that they don’t consider graffiti art. (People say the same thing about Rothko.) But there’s rarely talk about strippers covering up graffiti. How to speak of the shapes and the scars that they also leave on the property? Kalin’s work is an antidote to this one-sided discussion.
Kalin generally breaks down the work of graffiti removers into three categories, which you can read more about in a 2015 book available in print and online through Portland State University.
Here are two such categories, spotted in Seattle this week.
“conservative” graffiti removal
The. It did. BC
Kalin argues that the “standard and most common form” of graffiti removal, also known as masking, is the “conservative” category. It’s what you probably think of first when you think of graffiti removal. A large rectangle that hides the original label and perhaps tries to match the color of the wall it covers. These conservative boxes tend to be neutral hues. Beiges. Browns. Gray. Ugly.
Rectangles can overlap each other. BC
The relationship between the tagger and the stripper is ongoing. Often a remover will cover an original tag, only for the tagger to come back and mark above the remover masking. This back and forth can continue for years, with the stripper returning and using different shades of paint, creating a more colorful layered image. It can be accidentally beautiful.
But not always. BC
Above, a mover decided to use brown paint on a blue dumpster. Why? How is this an improvement?
This one is quite pretty. BC
Ghostly doodles. BC
Kalin refers to another common form of graffiti removal as “ghosting.” Here one person only tried to cover the original label lines. You can still make out the shape of the original tag, but the ghosting will obscure the content of the tag. Kalin writes that this style is often “the result of haste or lack of resources”.
A conservative style alongside ghosting. Has anyone run out of time? Were there two movers? BC
Sometimes ghosting can be exceptionally ugly. Take, for example, the work of the “Ballard Buffer”, which The foreigners Jas Keimig highlights in the video below.
There is a third category, which Kalin calls radicalwhich occurs when the stripper creates an entirely new shape or image above the original tag.
“What might be a rectangle in a conservative buff is in a radical buff a rectangle with wheels added to imply a truck, a line added to imply a gun, or a tail added to imply an animal,” Kalin explains. “It seems like some sort of mockery maybe of the graffiti artist, like an act of revenge on the mover’s part, maybe because he owns the property and wants to rub it in that he destroyed the tagger’s efforts . “
I couldn’t find any radical examples walking around town this week. The art of graffiti removal in Seattle is quite conservative.
As I mentioned earlier, Seattle’s new mayor Bruce Harrell talks about removing graffiti all the time.
“I have to tell you, what drives me so crazy is this graffiti all over the place,” Harrell said during KUOW’s year in review last December, above. “It’s not art. It’s graffiti.”
In that interview, Harrell suggested that some of the city’s taggers might be “starving artists… looking for the ability to express themselves.” But he stressed, as he regularly does, that his administration “will clean up this town.” He still makes that promise—in November, he told the Seattle Times that he will “investigate the culture” of Seattle taggers first, and then “try to build a relationship with a lot of these people.” And then, of course, “clean up” their work.
Harrell’s administration is barely a month old and hasn’t launched any new anti-graffiti enforcement or legislation, but it’s clearly coming. And while we wait to see how his administration will paint the city beige or gray, and whether it will do so in blocks or squiggles, Sundance and Northwest Film Forum’s revisit of Kalin’s work comes at the best possible time.
You can watch Matt McCormick’s short film the subconscious art of graffiti removal alongside three other shorts at the Northwest Film Forum this Sunday, January 30 at 4 p.m.