Fade to grey

Recently I wrote about buffing, the different ways in which councils, governments and property owners seek to erase any graffiti or street art that has been added to a wall or surface.

For many works of street art, the buff represents their fate, sometimes far sooner than the artist would like. One day the image is there, next day it’s gone – painted over, scraped off.

But sometimes an image evades the buff and remains in place for a long, long time. Its longevity might derive from its being tucked away in a hard-to-notice spot, so that years go by and the work has actually only been seen by a few people. Or it might have been placed somewhere that’s hard to reach – hard for the artist who put it there, but also hard for any cleaning crew, which means that a work can stay up for years. And sometimes, even when a work is prominently visible, easy to access, and illegally located, it somehow escapes the buff, and just slowly and gradually disappears, fading back into the stone.

Within street art culture, there seems to be a lot of admiration, and often rightly so, for newly painted work: images that look glossy and shiny, which haven’t been weathered or degraded in any way (by the addition of tags or the application of posters on top, for example). And I’ve heard people say that work which is fading ‘looks old’, ‘tired’ and so on, and to a certain extent that’s true.

But some artists like to see the effects of these external forces and circumstances on their artworks. Miso, for example, is interested in the peeling and fraying that can arise when a pasted-up image experiences the effects of hot sun, rain, wind. And JR’s pasted-up photographic posters register the impact of the environment pretty fast – his work on the façade of the Tate Modern was repaired by the gallery after only a matter of weeks in place, thanks to a damp British summer. For these artists, though, the possibility of deterioration isn’t a problem, but is rather an integral part of their artistic practice – it’s something they actively invite.

Beyond this, though, I think it’s also worth looking at fading artworks, even when that gradual disappearance and deterioration isn’t part of the artist’s stated intentions. It takes quite a time for a painted work on stone to fade – usually months or even years, which means these greying images have a lifespan that’s quite remarkable given the frequency of buffing and going-over by other artists.

Here’s a fading Banksy. To see the remains of it, it’s best to click on the image to make it bigger. Look at the top step, where there are some words still faintly visible:
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It reads ‘designated picnic area’ and is stencilled on the steps of an office building in a busy road in Shoreditch in London. It’s scarcely legible now, almost vanished back into the steps, its humour and incongruity about to depart the scene.

And take a look at this one:

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It looks like a red smudge on the pavement, but it’s the remains of another Banksy. If you look more closely at the wall next to the smudge, you can see the traces of the two rats stencilled on the walls:

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These rats were kitted out as waiters in a fancy restaurant, with the red smudge actually a red carpet. The rats have faded more than the red carpet, and you need to know what was there in order to make sense of what remains. I’m indebted in this respect to Martin Bull’s useful little book, Banksy Locations and Tours (details available from his website), which has a photograph of the work before it started to fade.

So how should we make sense of the fading artwork? Do we dismiss it as occupying some transitional zone between ‘freshness’ and oblivion? Do we paint over it so that new work can take its place? Does its faded nature mean that it is no longer worth noticing or thinking about?

In some ways, I think it’s the very ‘in between-ness’ of the fading image that makes it interesting. Not quite here and not quite gone, maybe having an almost historical value as a record of what was done in the past, but gradually relinquishing any claim on our attention amidst the visual hubbub of the contemporary city. So next time you walk through the streets, perhaps it’s worth paying homage to these fading images, these survivors who have, through chance or circumstance, escaped both the buff and the privileging of the new work of art.

1 comment so far

  1. SPARCS on

    it is quite nice to ones work fade and pass. It means that it was there long enough to fade and pass.

    I had one early paste-up that was in a great spot, not particularly difficult to access, but it stayed untill it yellowed, peeled and all but fell…it was over a year i think…not just a bad pasting job.

    This is true for stickers or slappies. Its great to see them stay in situ but, interesting to see them ripped or gone before their time. Did someone not like it that much, or me for that matter? Did someone want to take it home?

    It is expected that ones work will go, but its nicer when it takes a while, not week.


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