Say it and Spray It: Graffiti & Marketing

All stenciled graffiti owes a debt to the handprint stenciled onto the wall of the Chauvet Caves in France, circa 32,000 BC.
All stenciled graffiti owes a debt to the handprint stenciled onto the wall of the Chauvet Caves in France, circa 32,000 BC.

In a consultation recently, a client enquired about the efficacy of ?street stencils? as part of a branded entertainment campaign. I took this to mean ?spray-painting the URL to their online video all over town to get their target demo to watch it.? Yes, I replied, this could be effective ? if the target demo is law enforcement.

Long a requisite of the street team tool kit, guerilla-minded agencies have offered this and similar services hearkening back to the latter days of the last century. Current practitioners, however, advocate using the more legally nebulous and socially-conscious notion of ?reverse graffiti? or ?grime writing? wherein a surface such as tunnel caked with particulate matter belched from commute traffic is scrubbed (often with pressure washers and a laser-cut stencil) such that an image or brand message remains. The result of marketing DNA cut with the ?wash me? meme fingered in the dust of car windows.

As with most street-level marketing techniques, the process was co-opted from artists who use the urban landscape as their canvas. For that matter, the artists themselves are just as frequently co-opted. I personally should have co-opted one of these guys: Seeing as our client is in the beverage trade, we explored the notion of temporarily staining local walkways with wine spilled into a suggestive silhouette by way of a cardboard stencil. The result of the experiment was a soggy piece of cardboard afloat a puddle of malbec. A passerby congratulated my ?moment of clarity? as the wine rippled to the gutter.

Since I didn?t have a pressure washer, I looked into other means of leaving a (temporary) mark. Alas, I discovered ?spray chalk,? which is available in both commercial and homemade form (a recipe offered by The Bubble Gum Farm, looks promising ). It?s interesting to me that graffiti has evolved its own means of biodegradation, a sort of self-erasure reliant on the environment instead of human intervention. This is the graffito?s version of a natural death ? unlike a stencil on the brick wall between the McNear and Lan-Mart buildings off Kentucky Street in Petaluma, CA, that read ?Trap-A-Poodle? and persisted for nearly two decades before some civic-minded do-gooder finally scrubbed it.
(The tag was behind the dumpster on the right).

Like tattoo removal, graffiti removal can also leave scars as the former image suggests itself through hue like points in a constellation. Pal Jon Legare is responsible for dozens of such vestigial tags that dot the old town like liver spots. The PHSLO (originally the ?Petaluma High School Liberation Organization,? then later, the ?Present Human Society Liberation Organization? upon founder Legare?s graduation) used a stencil and spray can to promote this pithy public service message:

BE PURE
BE VIGILANT
BEHAVE

Of course, the word Legare neglected to include in his teen-scene agitprop elegantly summed his motivation: ?Because.?

My own experiments with graffiti (sans stencil) are limited to spray painting the name of an erstwhile publishing interest on the side of a retaining wall in the verdant hinterland that cleaves Sonoma and Marin counties. Suffice it to say, ?Raunchy Raunchy Arthur World Enterprises? did not remain inscribed long. Nor did ?Let it be love like speed,? the metaphysical motto of our departed friend James Zaremba, which I tagged on the eastern wall of American Alley at Western Avenue upon his death ? 15 years ago last week. The words were gone within days. I replaced them once and again they soon vanished. Finally it occurred to me that the epitaph?s inevitable erasure was aligned with the sad, but true state of affairs, rather than my angst and scrawl.

Next time, I?ll write it in wine. Because.

The ?Romanes Eunt Domus? scene from Monty Python?s The Life of Brian: