Graffiti

04-03-2001

I'd like to talk to you today about graffiti, because it's a new phenomenon in Prague, and it's something that really annoys me. I first saw graffiti in Amsterdam in 1988, and believe it or not, back then I didn't see it as either a positive nor a negative feature of the city. At that time we weren't allowed to travel freely. This was my third time in the West and I simply accepted it as something that went hand-in-hand with West European culture and lifestyle. But the graffiti I saw in Amsterdam was at a tram terminus - rather a dull place - and without it probably even duller. Prague is different. I heard someone saying recently that in the years of Communism Prague was like a beautiful woman without make-up; now it's like a model's face. No, Prague is definitely not grey or grim any longer. Thousands of houses have new facades and another thousand are under scaffolding just about to receive one. There are white, yellow, pink, green and blue houses. They look nice. But many of them are covered in graffiti. Maybe I wouldn't have anything against it in really dull places - I'm not sure. The main argument of the sprayers is - 'we want our city to look more colourful, more cheerful. And we would never spray on historical monuments, like Charles Bridge or St. Vitus Cathedral'. Well, at least these modern "artists" know that Charles bridge is a historical monument. What they apparently don't know is that Prague's thousands of 18th and 19th century houses and bridges are also historical monuments. The majority of them have owners, and sometimes their property was returned to them after years of devastation, because under Communism it belonged "to everyone and did not belong to anyone." Not everybody had hundreds of thousands of crowns to invest to the inherited house. And after they did, the whole effort was wasted within days - because of graffiti.

I've been following the on-going debate on this issue quite closely, especially in the papers, and I 'm surprised how many journalists show support for the sprayers. One of them even wrote in a grey drab street, graffiti can make an "unforgettable impression". Graffiti, he wrote, was freedom of expression in a public place. This is utter nonsense to me - although I must confess that a long time ago, when graffiti had not yet become part of Prague, I saw something really amazing: someone painted - not sprayed - painted - an eagle and a face of an old woman on the wall near the Malostranska metro station - copies of drawings by the 15th century German painter Albrecht Durer! So how do real artists look at graffiti? One of them wrote an article for another paper, in which he said clearly that sprayers were not artists: while art means to create something original, unrepeatable, unique and perpetual, graffiti does not strive to reach such noble aims. Sprayers are not creating anything authentic, because they only copy and imitate various styles of spraying "decorative" pictures. They only paint clichés, without creating real values.

Society is now starting to fight back. Last month, the Lower House amended the present law, and sprayers - if caught red-handed - may be sent to prison for up to eight years. Fans of graffiti say it's a harsh punishment, the same as for a theft, a rape or embezzlement. Well, rape is a serious crime and maybe a rapist should be sentenced to even longer in prison. But otherwise - isn't spraying on someone's house damaging his property and costing him money?

04-03-2001