Once upon a time, graffiti art was something you saw in foreign movies or music videos. However, paintings on street walls around Lagos are now more common than they were in the 90s and early 2000s.
Graffiti, aerosol art, spraycan art, street art or subway art, however you see fit, is art that is painted, drawn or scribbled on wall surfaces without authorization. Graffiti is art and depending on the spot you paint on, can also be viewed as defacing or destruction of properties.
Contemporary graffiti surfaced in the 1960s when young Darryl McCray started writing his moniker ‘Cornbread’ on the structures of Youth Development Centre (YDC), a juvenile corrections centre in Philadelphia, United States. After his release, he decided to paint walls and buildings on the streets with his friends. The new art style became widely known in the 1970s, when youths started etching their names with spray paint on walls or structures around the town and on subway trains.
Despite graffiti being prevalent in the United States for over two decades, the concept was popularized in Nigeria when artist Osa seven illustrated the ‘Eko Tag’ mural which was commissioned by the Lagos State government to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the formation of the South West, Lagos State. Asides the ‘Eko Tag’ mural, there are other graffiti paintings on walls around Lagos that may, or may not have been commissioned. Since the ‘Eko Tag’ mural launched, more restaurants in Lagos have incorporated the graffiti aesthetic on their building structures. On why Osa Seven chose to do graffiti, he told Culture Custodian, “when I decided to go into this, there was little or no street art present; none of the murals we now see in Lagos and Nigeria today at restaurants, bars or hangout sports. Everything was pretty much obsolete. Interestingly, it’s pretty much part of the culture right now when people are setting up shops.”
The common debates around graffiti are — Is it art? Is it not art? Is it vandalism? and Is it a crime? The arguments are extremely intricate and hinge on several elements like where the art is created, the value and the message behind the art. The answer is vague and both standpoints of the debate are clearly evident; in reality, some people would be agitated if another person painted on their property without their permission. On the other hand, people can maintain that graffiti provides artists with the freedom to express themselves.
Essentially, every art is distinct, and artists should be free to express themselves and create on their preferred canvas. However, freedom comes with limitations. Artists have unique ways of displaying their art; some draw on paper, paint on a canvas, others create using charcoal while graffiti artists use wall surfaces to depict their art. What sets graffiti apart from other art forms is that it is done on a unique type of canvas and it is public. Just like art, graffiti conveys light, colours and a message. Graffiti artists rejuvenate walls, taking the plain surface from dull to picturesque. Osa Seven said “I’m a sucker for the process, it’s not just the result for me. I like seeing things go from a blank canvas to an amazing piece of art.”
To most people, graffiti is vandalism, and due to this negative connotation attached to graffiti and the possibility of getting in trouble, the majority of graffiti artists scribble their nicknames on their work to conceal their true identities. This act is called tagging. Tagging means attaching your name or moniker to a graffiti artwork. In a lot of countries, tagging public buildings or assets without consent is regarded as a type of vandalism that attracts grave punishment. Skater and graffiti artist, FahdsUniverse started graffiti during the COVID-19 lockdown. On if he signs his graffiti and uses a nickname to hide his identity, he says “Yes, but with a logo”.
A few countries have laws surrounding graffiti. However, Nigeria has no specific law prohibiting graffiti. In the law, there is a provision that considers vandalism as an offence. A part of Section 351 of the penal code says:
“A penalty of a fine or imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year shall be applied to any person who damages, destroys, renders useless or spoils an object which wholly or partially belongs to someone else.”
A police officer who asked to be anonymous says “if there is no agreement with the owner of the property or commissioned by the government, it’s a crime. The owner is allowed to sue the artist”. FahdsUniverse has never had any experience with the Nigerian police and tries not to get caught. He says “you always need to have a lookout. A friend or someone who is down to do it with you. Sometimes it depends, you can find out who is in the area and come to an agreement or understanding with them so no one bothers you”.
For now, graffiti artists are not privileged to prove that graffiti is a creative skill because some consider it vandalism. This is an unpleasant tag to attach to something that demands similar artistry, and effort as other types of art. Unlike in the past when graffiti was strongly frowned upon, society is gradually warming up to this unique form of art. Some people do not consider graffiti as good or as art, and some may never regard it as such. However, art is subjective. The primary purpose of graffiti is always about the message behind the piece, not just for public appreciation or acceptance. “I just feel like people don’t understand it enough, so they condemn it. Most times it’s about the message you are trying to pass. It’s very important”, FahdsUniverse said.
Osa Seven uses his art to incite positive change in Nigeria. He said, “I am a co-founder of a platform called Socially Africa where we go to public schools, and we paint educational artworks to make their spaces look good so the kids find their learning spaces more comfortable.”