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Since the Neanderthals and Neolithic peoples roamed the Earth they have sought to impress their character upon their environment through sculpture and wallpainting, it’s something that defines us as human. People who lived in pre-civilised societies marking their environment was as important as language as a means of communicating their situation to one another and since then there hasn’t been a group which has made any significant record of itself without creating art.
Starting with geometric patterns, hand prints and realistic representations of the animals that shared the early human’s environment wall painting has always seemed like the most obvious way for one human to leave a mark that another could come and look and understand after the event. Rome is famed for its mosaic floors and architecture but there was a huge amount of wall painting and formal murals depicting fantastic and idyllic environments which were designed to reflect the hopes and aspirations of the people who painted, or paid the painters of future prosperity. Roman mural painting developed over several centuries from naïve and geometric looking representations of plants, humans and animals to highly stylised visions of pastoral perfection.
The Dutch and Florentine renaissance too carried on this tradition of landscape painting and murals, including works by Joachim Patinir, Alberecht Durer and the frankly surreal imaginings of Hieronymous Bosch, however, after Brunellesci’s ‘invention’ of linear perspective, a device which was to be used to such great effect by other renaissance artists including Donatello and Masccio landscapes of all types became far more reflective of reality, capturing as they did three dimensional space, foreshortening and the vanishing point of parallel lines. Thanks to this technique painting could now realistically suggest precise depth and distance over vast visually realistic panorama rather than vistas where relative size had nothing to do with distance but importance in the narrative of the painting.
Once these techniques were developed a certain amount of tromp l‘oeil or ‘tricking the eye’ was possible. Full height murals right down to miniatures and furniture decoration could look so realistic that, even from a relatively short distance, they could convince the viewer that what they were looking at was real.
In the nineteenth and twentieth century art lost its formalism and basis of representing the world as it was or indeed should be. Semantic abstraction such as cubism, which was so popularised by Braque and Picasso in particular, took themes and motifs from the visceral world and attempted to represent them from more than one dimension at the same time. Guernica is a mural sized painting which abstractly represents, in black and white, the horror of mechanised war inflicted upon a peasant village which barely knew anything of the modern world. At the other end of the scale is Rothko, his Seagram murals are non-iconic blocks of colour which rely on tone and proportion to convey a sense of emotion. Blocks of colour are simply places against other blocks of colour yet the scale and proportion accurately reflects the architectural rules of the greatest Greek and Roman works of architecture including the Parthenon and Trajan’s Column, scales which Rothko believed would communicate with the viewer on a purely emotional, non-representative level.
Later in the twentieth century people otherwise outside of any recognised artistic clique began their own movement. It was instant, it was heartfelt and it was illegal, and because of this some people argued that it is the most honest form of art we know. It’s created at the expense and risk of the artist who will gain no recognition or remuneration for their efforts, instead they risk arrest and prosecution.
Graffiti as an art form began in the seventies in New York where young artists would spray paint railway and underground carriages, walls and pretty much anything that would take a coat of aerosol. The motivations were varied, for some it was to mark their artist’s territory or ‘turf’ for others it was the only realistic way of producing art which had any meaning which would be seen by other people, for some it was just a way of colouring the drab, depressing filth of the broken city which New York had become by the end of that decade.
Many people say they hate graffiti, that it is simply vandalism and that it should all be scrubbed off. Would these vandals also suggest that the paintings left by our most ancient in Chauvet should also be scrubbed off? Of course not. These cave paintings are of huge cultural significance notwithstanding the artists sprayed paint (from their mouths) onto walls. Street art enlivens and enriches the built environment that many people find themselves in today. Without street art and graffiti this environment would be bland, brutal and indeed Brutalist in many cases. Graffiti springs up either where the environment is derelict and run down or built with function and not the needs of the human psyche in mind. This most frequently seems to be inner cities where the only colour is frequently a rectangle of blue when you look straight up.
Graffiti art breaks us free of an almost Langian vision of an urban dystopia where the only concession to colour would otherwise be homogenous corporate commercialising. It offers prospectless youth an opportunity to add life, colour and beauty to their otherwise oppressive surroundings, like a flower bursting from concrete.
So, spraying on walls is touching at the very cornerstone of communication and what it is to be a member of a civilised human community.
Whether these concepts of art, culture and civilisation were at the forefront of Adam and the board’s mind when they retained Snug to create the graffiti mural at the north end wall of the Fresh Egg offices is debatable.
Snug has been painting graffiti murals since the end of the 80s, moving from emulating the styles of his peers in his own area to taking commissions and showing art in galleries all over.
I spoke to Snug about the change in his style and whether he had been particularly influenced by the perspective paintings of the renaissance:
Snug: It was a case of taking graffiti and classical renaissance art and mixing them up, tromp l’ oeil taking you from the office into another world.
I pointed out that the style was quite different from his older style and whether that was because of his stylistic development or because that was what the commission had asked for:
Snug: Probably a bit of both really, certainly the paining I did for you was in the same style, as in adult illustration, adult cartooning rather than Disney stuff. The work was done specifically with no outlines, which was a combination of the brief that Adam had given me as it was supposed to tie in with what you do at Fresh Egg as in computer generated images, it’s very slick, chiselled, very bright which is reminiscent of something you’d find in a computer generated film. So the work was a combination of me progressing artistically but also kowtowing to the brief that the company had given me.
Dan Cash: How much freedom did you have as far as the brief was concerned? Did Adam tell you specifically what he wanted or did he leave it down to you?
Snug: Adam came to me initially with Pip and Adam had written down a lot of watchwords which they wanted to be portrayed in the picture but Adam said “you don’t have to use all of them” and considering there were about 50 different words and phrases there wasn’t an expectation to put all of them in, just basically interpret what we’re trying to do here at the company. But me being me and trying to impress as always, at the initial stage of the job, i.e. the design phase, I tried to incorporate every single watchword within the brief that Adam had given me, so it could have taken me less time but now that it’s over and the dust has settled I'm really overjoyed with it. I’m pleased that I did do it. As far as being given my own carte blanche: yes and no, 50-50 really. I’m my own worst enemy when I try and impress a client at the beginning of a job and then I don’t look at how that’s going to affect it at a later date, which can result in a work running on to eight or nine months or whatever!
DC: Is that the way you usually work, sharing ideas with the client?
Snug: Yeah, absolutely, absolutely. Certainly with corporate jobs of this description.
DC: So do you still do stuff out on the street? I was looking at a magazine article on your work which says you used to work with community groups a lot, do you still do that or do you…
Snug: Not really, that was a point in time that where I was part of a crew, a collective of about 15 different graffiti artists all doing different types of galleries and so on, people came to us as a collective to ask if we could do youth centre work and so on, that was a natural way for people to come and see the collective, some of us wanted to do it and some of us didn’t. It was just a time and place, and I did it at the time.
DC: So things have changed a lot since then with artists such as Banksy and Blek le Rat, do you think they have changed people’s opinion of graffiti and street art, not withstanding that they are stencilers rather than spray can artists?
Snug: The original graffiti world, as in spraying a name in big fancy bubble letters, is an old school and they’re a group who frown on the new way of stencilling but then at the same time Banksy has opened up graffiti or street art but what Banksy has done is open it up and bring it to the big, paying public basically so that it’s now seen as high art. That’s very good, because graffiti art is now being appreciated rather than being frowned upon as vandalism and so on, which it clearly isn’t. Also, as I’ve said before, people in the higher echelons of modern art are asking, “is it art or is it vandalism, is it art at-all?” But it is art, it’s a movement whether people appreciate it or not. With Cubism and so on, people frowned upon it because it was new. There was a point about ten or 15 years ago when I was going to give it up and move into fine art but I’m still doing it, so, you know…