Reverse Graffiti Artists Create Clean Urban Murals

Thanks to artists like Banksy and Shepard Fairey, most of us are aware of street art; usually unauthorized and often subversive, the sculptures and spray-painted murals pop up everywhere from Sao Paulo to London. In many cases, the art is applied over layers upon layers of previous graffiti. Even the best pieces are temporary (unless they’re Banksys, in which case they’re removed and sold for six figures).

But Banksy is old news. I’m here to show you a new trend in street art that’s storming the internet: reverse graffiti. Instead of stenciling over layers of paint and dirt, the artists clean away grime to create an image from negative space.

For example, Dutch Ink, a group formed by four brand communications students in South Africa, scrubs pictures of birds, fish, landscapes, and baroque fleur-de-lis designs onto dingy city walls. Their work, highlighting the disconnect between urban life and nature, has landed them plenty of attention online, as well as commercial jobs for ad agencies.

Meanwhile, in San Francisco, reverse graffiti pioneer Paul Curtis teamed up with GreenWorks (Clorox’s eco branch) to stencil a forest of native plants on the inside of the Broadway tunnel. Filmmaker Doug Pray produced a short documentary on the project:


Uncommissioned reverse graffiti presents city officials with a bit of a conundrum. Authorities in many areas are quick to paint over murals and prosecute street artists. But reverse graffiti undeniably improves the urban environment–and who’s going to arrest someone for cleaning a wall?

Of course, the discussion extends to “traditional” street art, as well. If you paint birds and trees on a building, are you defacing property or beautifying unused space? Where does vandalism stop and art begin?

Some would say that art is considered crime when no one profits from it–in other words, authorities hide street murals because they don’t fit into the capitalist machine. But, when urban art is permitted, does it loose some of its impact? After all, part of the appeal comes from its ephemeral, guerrilla nature. It has an accessible art-to-the-people vibe that slick galleries can’t imitate. Can it maintain that quality when it’s legal, or even commissioned by a company like Clorox?

Philosophy aside, reverse graffiti has enormous potential to make our cities more pleasant and our commutes more entertaining. Commercialized or not, legal or not, creative projects like this are an exciting new element in the urban environment.

What do you think? Where and how does street art fit into modern urbanism? Is it illegal because it’s destructive, or because it’s subversive? Is the chance to reach a larger audience worth the artistic cost of commercialization? Share your thoughts in the comments or @thegreenlens. 

[Images: Dutch Ink, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]