Brick Lane Graffiti: who owns the public space?

Reflection on the Ownership of public space – physical or intangible

A procedural depiction of a futuristic world is characterised by a sophisticated metropolis, with a jungle of high-risers and floating cars. Cities are regarded as the pinnacles of civilisations – from Jericho to Manhattan – displaying the glory of our collective effort and wisdom. For some, however, cities are synonymous for crime and danger, where deceit and lies crouch; for some, cities are apathetic, every one looks after no more than themselves.

Moving from one overpopulated city to another, it wasn’t until awhile ago that I got the chance to visit Brick Lane. With no exception, I too was stunned by the vast display of creativity in the form of street graffiti. This kind of artistic expression is almost never seen in Hong Kong, where the art form is largely associated with outlaws and delinquents. My friendly tour guide explained that the graffiti at Brick Lane is tightly regulated – art pieces are regularly brushed off the walls and replaced by others’ work, popular ones might get a 2-year airtime. Perhaps this is how “Graffiti at Brick Lane” differentiated itself from “malicious defacement of public property” to one of the most popular tourist hotspots in London.

Graffiti in Hanbury Street, accessed via beerandcroissants.com/brick-lane-street-art/
Graffiti on Hanbury Street, accessed via beerandcroissants.com/brick-lane-street-art/

“Regulated graffiti”, I have to applaud the tenacity of the governing party’s attempt to “valorise” the art form. By putting order in disorder, graffiti at Brick Lane became a formal route of artistic expression; one can proudly sign one’s name next to their work, without having to worry about the legal consequences. Having one’s work displayed at Brick Lane became a sought-after honour. Your artwork’s intended audience expands from local bobs to tourists around the world. Comparing to unregulated graffiti, or just “normal graffiti”, rules and regulations freed one’s work from the laws of the jungle: your work won’t be vandalised or painted over just because you’ve painted on the wrong side of the road, or that you’ve taken a “better” spot. Popularity becomes a fair estimation of how long one’s work should stay up, reducing the risk of a horrible work occupying the public space.

However, it wouldn’t take one too long to smell the irony of such practice. One could go as far as saying “regulated graffiti” is an oxymoron. Graffiti emerged as an anti-establishment form of public art. With regulation, with no exception, comes censorship. This compromised version of graffiti sold their soul to buy airtime and public acceptance.

Graffiti at Parkland Walk, North London, photo taken 2020

This short case study of Brick Lane graffiti invites deeper deliberation on the ownership of public spaces. In a framework that relies on rules and regulation, the responsibility of implementing and policing these rules fall onto the governing institute. It became no ones’ but the institute’s responsibility to delegate and manage the public space. With great power comes responsibility (No Way Home!), I’d think the reverse is equally true. The institute, by design, manifest the power of the many, with such power comes freedom to shape the rules in the forms they see fit – no swearing, no nudity, or, no disturbance of public order (…) or national security(…) (almost seems like I’m endorsing anarchy). The institute owns the public space. One might suggest that institute is the least of the evil, assuming the only alternative for an unregulated system leads to barbaric chaos where iron fists and crime rules. I would argue otherwise.

Graffiti is a public art form. The essence of graffiti lies in the public sphere – anyone with a can of paint could chip in. There is a natural selection mechanism – messages that the mass agreed with would be replicated; messages few agreed with would be ignored, and probably soon scratched; only messages most strongly disagreed with would be “cancelled”. There is no singular institute that decides what to censor, it is but a shared power, hence responsibility for all in the community. The public space is then, co-owned by the public. Correspondingly, this system of public space management requires members of the public to take an active role in co-creating, maintaining and cultivating the public ecosystem to ensure people’s artistic expressions could be sufficiently captured.

The elephant on the street, near Brixton, London. Photo taken 2021.

The elephant in the room is, perhaps regardless of how eye-catching the graffiti are, quite a number of us just don’t want paints on our properties. Similarly, not everyone wants to take part in the public sphere. This is a nature of the crowd, and coincidentally the downfall of a completely non-regulated community. The silent majority is how the mafia could take ownership of the streets by brute force. The opportunity to paint on walls would be stifled, when mutual dependency of the public is broken, and that the powerful abuse ones with less power, not respecting their stakes in the community.

Never an easy way to please everyone, ay? There is no one superior way to manage any public spaces, it largely depends on their compositions. I guess a lesson from this is, we should try to be appreciative of opinions shared in the public sphere, be it graffiti, podcasts, or blog posts. They may not occupy the BBC headlines, or shine amongst the Brick Lane graffiti, they nevertheless are part of our voices that deserves to be listened. Pray that the institute have the breadth of mind to reflect on the power imbalance and empower the public; and that the public would feel safe and ready to share and co-create our public space.

Graffiti at Camberwell, photo taken 2021