Scrubbing art onto grimy walls

2010-04-24 10:22

ONE must pity the grouchy local ­residents who dig weekly into their ­pensions for the buckets of paint to erase offending marks.

It is perhaps for this reason that these same grouchy residents in Durban’s suburbs are embracing and applauding the efforts of a group known as Dutch Ink, who have for the past year been putting a unique environmental spin on a contentious art form.

Drawing inspiration from the work of British street artist Paul ­Curtis (aka “Moose”), who pioneered what has become popularly known as “green” or “reverse graffiti”, the group is “sprouting” trees all over ­walls in Durban.

Legend has it that Curtis first hit upon his idea two years ago while he was working as a kitchen porter in a ­restaurant, scrubbing mountains of pots and pans.

One dreary evening, trying to erase a grease stain on the sink wall, Curtis cleaned a large white patch on the grimy surface.

It didn’t take long before the ­aspirant street artist began ­conquering London’s cityscape, applying to more prominent walls and bridges his vigorous method of ­selective scrubbing.

Curtis gradually scrubbed his way to fame using giant stencils and ­high-pressure water hoses to wash reverse images – mostly of trees and nature – onto soiled city surfaces.

It was an idea that Durbanite ­Martin Pace (24) initially borrowed and adapted.

Selecting a polluted freeway wall in Westville as an ideal experimental canvas, and armed with a metal ­scrubbing brush, Pace proceeded to ­hand-scrub the 17m wall with a ­pictorial timeline of Westville’s ­architecture.

The response was mostly ­encouraging, but, says Pace, “There will always be the one old ­hag who ­misinterprets our efforts as ­vandalism and calls the police.”

Pace then united with Stathi Kongianos, JP ­Jordaan and Nick Ferreira, fellow students at Vega Brand Communication School, to tackle more ambitious canvases.

Over the next few months the Dutch Ink crew etched a florid design of trees into a Durban North wall and, more recently, a mammoth sardine run featuring a school of stencilled fish darting across the ­surface of a downtown freeway wall.

­Unlike graffiti, such etchings are ephemeral, gradually fading under the effects of time, sunshine and carbon grime.

While this sort of collective ­“flashmob” scrubbing is often ­referred to as “green graffiti”, Pace and his cronies shift uncomfortably when the term is used.

“It’s more of an etching,” he ­corrects, “or ‘green tagging’, but even ­tagging comes with its own set of ­territorial connotations which we would like to avoid.”

There is nothing, it seems, ­unlawful about the technique. Can one be legitimately accused of ­vandalism when all they have done is set out to wash (albeit selectively) a mucky city wall?

“That’s the beauty of our whole project,” says Pace, “our work ­merely highlights how siff (a ­derivative of the word syphilis and a popular Durban colloquialism for ‘disgusting’) these city walls are.”

While law enforcers and ­municipalities have no legal grounds to stop reverse graffiti they are, it ­appears, overly eager to eliminate ­evidence of their neglect by swiftly painting over the murals – ironically, an action that makes the walls ideal targets for taggers to leave more permanent stains.

“The art on the walls draws ­attention to the state of them,” says Pace. “Municipalities do not ­recognise their worth and paint over them. They shoot ­themselves in the foot when they remove our work.”

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