The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal

Subconscious Art: a product of artistic merit that was created without conscious artistic intentions.

Some time ago I came across the Best of ResFest DVD series. On Vol. 3 there was this 15-minute long documentary with the most unusual title: The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal. Being a graffiti writer myself, I was immediately intrigued. 

Written and directed by Matt McCormick, a filmmaker from Portland, Oregon, this ethereal short film from 2001 documents the seemingly mundane job of graffiti removal (or, as we graff writers call "buffing," or "getting buffed"). While we follow a couple of regular-joe-type city workers as they cruise the streets looking for graffiti tags and other various aerosol activity from the previous night, the filmmakers intercut with very very long artsy shots of various factory walls covered with sporadically painted shapes, complete with heady art-school voice-over ruminations about this potential "art movement." 

 Yes, you read that right. There is a sort of tongue-in-cheek humor that permeates throughout the film, as the female voice-over describes this activity as being "one of the more intriguing and important art movements of the early 21st century." And just as art movements have roots for their state-of-being, she even goes so far as to say that this art movement's roots stem from abstract expressionism, minimalism, and Russian constructivism. We hear the names of Rothko, Rauschenberg, and Malevich mentioned as their work exhibits stylizations that the "graffiti removal artists" are perhaps referencing. And I can definitely see why. The following two paintings are by Rothko, and you can see how the use of abstract but organized shapes evoke the same sense of this deliberate painting-over that the subconscious artists do in the third image: 

Untitled (unknown date)


Untitled (Plum, Orange, Yellow), 1947

Somewhere in Portland, c. 2001

This is not to say that these subconscious artists are on the same level as Rothko. It's all about the intent.

Continuing on this academic bent, McCormick takes it a step further and designates three separate methods utilized by graffiti removal artists:

1. Symmetrical: producing identifiable shapes in a series of squares and rectangles. 
2. Ghosting: painting over the tag by basically following the lines, whereby the original artwork can still be seen. 
3. Radical: where the "artist" uses neither geometry nor the original tag as guidelines. 

 Now, at this point, I just had to laugh. I mean, it really is kinda funny to suggest that there could be art scholars out there that take the time to analyze, deconstruct and critique work done by city workers, most of whom are completely unaware that what they're doing is being considered "art." It sounds a bit absurd, doesn't it? 

 I sure did dig it, though. For me, it was the notion that this film dared to be taken very seriously, outlining strong points and showcasing excellent photography, all the while giving you that subtle wink that seems to say, "yeah, we know this sounds loopy, but we're having fun with it." I would even go so far as to say that Matt McCormick & Co. were poking fun at the navel-gazing art community as a whole. And I love that. 

 By the end of the film, they had me really thinking about all this. The idea that this "subconscious art" could be actually taken seriously raises some interesting questions: 

Is it really art if the creator is not aware of it? 

 To these "removal artists," what they were doing was WORK. They were not thinking in creative terms. They just picked out the paint, the rollers, and did their thing. In fact, in the film, the filmmakers mention that there had to be some creative process going on, as the workers had to pick and choose which gallon of paint to use, and how to paint over the graffiti. But the big difference is that these workers were not making these choices with the knowledge of having an end result (aside from the fact of getting the job done). Is it necessary for the artist to knowingly benefit from the process? 

Who really designates what "art" is, anyway? Artist or viewer? 

The artist, [Marcel] Duchamp said, is a "mediumistic being" who does not really know what he is doing or why he is doing it. It is the spectator who, through a kind of "inner osmosis," deciphers and interprets the work's inner qualifications, relates them to the external world, and thus completes the creative cycle. The spectator's contribution is consequently equal in importance to the artist's, and perhaps in the long run even greater, for, as Duchamp remarked in another context, "it is posterity that makes the masterpiece."

When it comes to the presentation of art there is a symbiotic relationship that forges itself between artist and viewer. Some artists feel that they don't need an audience in order to create. And to some degree, I feel the same way. Sometimes I like to draw and paint for myself. But someone will eventually take a look at my work, possibly offering their opinion about what they've seen. This relationship between artist and viewer is important for both as it enables the artist to keep in touch with his audience, remaining grounded, so to speak, and enables the viewer to keep in touch with his/her cultural side. Both benefit from this relationship. 

 This is really a discussion for another day, but for the sake of this post, once that paint was placed over those tags on those particular walls, it was officially up for judgment by the public. And from this public, a one Matt McCormick decided that the act of painting over artwork has merits as being artwork in and of itself. It is a cyclical thing, too, as the canvas changes constantly - each night or each week more and more tags have to be painted over, with the covering paint being different each time, creating a unique pattern on various walls around town. This is all subjective, as all art is, of course, because most will not agree that this activity would even be considered art. I brought this subject up with an intern at Primal Screen and he, in turn, mentioned it to his art-school classmates. They all agreed that there's no way that anything covering over artwork should be considered "art." But I believe that they missed the point. Of course it sucks to have art covered up, even if it is the bastard child of the art world, graffiti -- but what is interesting to me, as a viewer, is the way said covering up looks like in the end. 

 Photographers do this for a living, every single day -- they point their lenses toward every single corner of our world and somehow make the mundane mesmerizing through their artistic eye. It's all a matter of being aware of your surroundings and realizing that there are some really amazing and interesting things to look at, even if it may just be something so simple as a wall being covered up by paint. 

 Interesting film. If you get the chance, I definitely recommend you check it out. 

UPDATE: I've taken some shots of this "subconscious art movement," myself. Check out this post as well as my Flickr photoset street gallery.


  1. Wow! Way to send me back to art history class!!

    I may not totally agree but it's a fascinating argument and, I think, one that merits a larger debate... I have been consistently amazed by the wonderful work created by graf artists--particularly in the great urban "gallery" over in the Krog Street tunnel.

    One of the things that sort of fits into this thread are some of the ways that new developers artfully attempt to shield their new tenants from their "urban" surroundings. They will erect large Christo-esque fences or plant huge rows of trees and create a wall of greenery which serve to screen those inside from the blight outside... I don't know, I might not make any sense... It's great stuff to think and talk about...

  2. that first photo reminds me of the work of Ben Nicholson

    neat-o post, good reminder to really look around

    and FYI, "blogger" is still having issues with "comments", took OVER 5 MINUTES=forever to load to the comment window !

  3. I just stumbled onto blogs recently and yours is one of my favorites. It's well written and looks great.

  4. Thanks for the film suggestion. I enjoy documentaries of all kinds. Thanks for the brief art history info also.

  5. I don't believe that subconsious actions are the last bastion of unique creativity, rather just another way of producing something that may or may not be considered worthy of art. If it's subconsious and the person doing this activity doesn't think that it's worthy of being called "art," then the intent is diverted. Here's where the viewer comes into play, as he/she designates if this is worthy of something that's interesting to look at.

    Honestly, I like it when someone does something that they did not realize is creative. That's the draw for me. I also like it when time takes it's toll on an object, say an old sign, and the rust and weathering takes over and suddenly it's a completely different sign. This is similar to a subconsious action as it's not originally meant to be this way. If I'd seen this sign brand new, I probably wouldn't have paid any attention to it, but now that the elements have worn its look, to me the sign has added character to it, and thus looks more interesting. The sign went from utilitarian to object of art, in my eyes.

    Really, it's all in the eye of the beholder.

  6. i noticed this strange graf coverup pattern thing a few years ago when i was living in san francisco, and i started to take photos of it, and to my surprise they started looking like modernist paintings. i really got into it. there's a san francisco based arts website that posted some of the photos at this link:


    not all of them are coverups, but you'll get the idea.

    scott larkin

  7. I don't know if you keep up with BoingBoing, but I think that this is interesting regarding the art / artist relationship:

    This woman had Down's syndrome, and had no concept of art, yet created what we have no choice but to call "sculpture."

    It's because of things like this that I firmly believe that authorial or artistic intent doesn't mean a damn thing.

    - Matt S.

  8. Regarding this woman's work, it's "art" because we are saying it's so. She's just creating and doing her thing because, well, who knows why? She's got that inner desire to create something -- whether it be for herself, or for others around her, we're not completely sure. And I dig that. But we are calling it "sculpture" because that is what we think it is. She may feel that it's completely different, and maybe not even "art." I still feel that intent plays a big part in this, it's just that her intent is probably not in the same ballpark as what we usually imagine. Great story, by the way. Thanks for sharing.

  9. like Duhh!!!
    you seriously think your the first person to conceptualize such an idea?
    it's SO obvious, no one has ever needed to do so.

  10. I've never said that I was the first person to think about this. And NO, it is NOT obvious, because if you read the entire commentary, you'll see that whenever I approached this subject to others, they immediately thought that it was NOT art. And these were ART STUDENTS, no less! And thus, I felt that this was an interesting topic to talk about here. You should realize that I never try to come across all art-snobbish and pompous, and if you think I am, well, then you've got me all wrong. And what's with the negativity? Ease up a little.

  11. just to add a new word here:
    The phenomena of " Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal" is called fleeting and there is a really nice fleeting gallery by Marshall Sokoloff right here ( http://www.themorningnews.org/archives/personalities/fleeting/index.html )

  12. Thanks, Youni for that. Very interesting.

  13. As an artist and someone who has to paint over tags at my workplace I intentionally try and make my coverups interesting. The tags I cover up are gang graffiti and soI try and disrupt the legibility of what I'm painting over with what are best described as hatching patterns. This is more interesting to look at and saves more paint then just painting a large box over the tag.

    Incidentally, I live in Portland Oregon, have seen this film and love it.

  14. this video is really great.. i have ripped it off the resffest dvd.. and if someone want to download it look for me on soulseek
    user = carbono14

  15. I think the big thing about the subconscious art of graffiti removal is the intention of the artist/wroker. SOmeone creating art with the intent ot be art is trying to appeal to some kind of aesthetic, beit their own or a potential viewer/buyer. The buff squad, on the ohter hand, while perhaps apllying a certain technique they find appealing, are not trying to create for an audience. At the most basic, their style may be in thier own aesthetic interest, but what it is that makes it more amazing as art is that some can veiw it as appealing to an aesthetic/idea without the orignial creator viewing it in that way.

    I, on the other hand, tend to like looking at the graff more than the buff. But it is nice to see a piece or bomb that takes the buff into account, i.e. using the colors as a fill or whatnot.

  16. I prefer your Ava throw to your characters, it looks so juicy and clean!

    While buffing definitely covers up the art that I love, it also provides a blank canvas, and keeps the writers putting up new shit. Nice post, want that DVD now.

  17. Fascinating stuff. Relates a lot (I think) to my own photography, and my love for the work of Mark Rothko. If you're interested, look at http://www.roundedwithasleep.net and click on january 2006.

  18. I've taught this film in an "art and argument" class, and responses vary. Most think there is a joke played on the viewer and those able to laugh at themselves agree with the main idea brought up at the film's conclusion re: "Ruling class causes dangerous buildup in need for expression," but the real achievement of the film exists in the way it almost unilaterally activates the audience's ability to view art where they might not otherwise. It has opened a few eyes in my classes.

  19. Absolute genious twist - brilliant

  20. My block in Los Angeles is covered with graffiti. My building is decorated with a kind of art-graffiti, but the rest of the block just has tags. Tags seem so destrucive and violent, but the art kind is less so, more expressive. I want the tags to go away but I'm not sure about the artsy typle. I love your article about the are of removal. I have to think about this some more!

  21. This is the next stage of the street art lifecycle,a byproduct of graffiti itself. Who created it - the city worker or the initial writer?

    Check out Krink's work.. moving beyond the usual dialog of line form and funk he celebrates the drip and buff, the residual aesthetic.

    J A Z E R O N E
    keep ghostin my tags suckaz

    PS -

    Yo Pam

    Calligraphy and typography are the essence of graff. The "infinite variations provided by a common theme", in our case the theme is primarily letterforms. Please try not to see tags so seperately from the rest of the artwork and you might feel like we do..

    toys who paint publicly without practicing first need a slap.


  22. great documentary, I watched several times :) I posted just now into my blog