Football Graffiti

For many people across various social strata graffiti is an eyesore.   The media paints it as a product of American hip-hop culture more appropriate to the Bronx in New York or an east coast Urban American centre.  In Europe its development and spread is generally frowned upon by society. Seen as an act of senseless vandalism and a chaotic distortment to every day scenes of natural beauty, corporate architecture, property ownership it can be viewed as a blot on rural innocence.   Despite its unique creativity, colour and impressionism the general everyday public disdain for what is wall vandalism has seen public outrage and allowed for a selection of anti-graffiti laws to be created by politicians with little fuss, political obstruction or public protest.  In the media we have seen a wide variety of high profile graffiti artists being convicted over artwork and thereafter turned into public outlaws, portrayed as nothing more than anti-social pests simply through this medium and skill they have of colourful creativity and message making.   Football is not immune; the game touches on many spheres of life and creativity.  Across many parts of the world there is artwork dedicated to football from Rio to Athena

Football and Art – Graffiti

Like football hooligans who continue to follow clubs despite laws that reach out to punish and restrain, still many artists continue to paint in the streets, near train stations and tunnels choosing to disregard the laws designed to jail, punish or outlaw. Metro trains such as underground rolling stock or local train carriages are often the main area targeted as are stations, platforms or other railway property.

Graffiti occurs on fences, walls, buildings, and property visible to the community or to other graffiti’ists as a form of competition.  Just as the subculture of football violence and its associated unwritten codes of dress, actions and views continue to exist so graffiti can be seen wherever we are, and wherever we travel in the world. It can be seen either from trains or in urban areas by rivers. The mere existence of it and its continuation shows an impulse to communicate that far outweighs any efforts designed to stop it as an art form.

Football graffiti in the United Kingdom may be lacking creatively and lagging somewhat behind that of foreign clubs but it’s still exists only less evidently. Football graffiti in the UK is still at the ‘Kilroy was here stage’ in general bar a few examples in Bristol – and even that is a hint to the city being home to some of the best graffiti in the UK.  Possibly the largest collection of street art dedicated to football exists in Northern Ireland through wall murals in Belfast with images dedicated to iconic figures such as George Best, Linfield and Glentoran.

As such though these images are often not graffiti at least if we go by definition.

The word we know as Graffiti is said to come from the Italian word graffiato or “scratched”. Modern Graffiti is applied to art work produced by scratching or spraying a design into a surface such as a wall or pavement.

Another word used in artistic terminology is graffito which involves scratching through one layer of pigment or stencil to reveal another images beneath it.  Historically, this technique was primarily first used by potters who would glaze wares and thereafter scratch a design into it.

Through history man has long left images on walls to communicate with others either through writing or via symbolic imagery. In ancient times such as in Egypt graffiti was carved on walls with a sharp object such as chalk or coal.  In China, large graffiti type murals were used in the Mao Zedong era in the 1920s.   The regime used revolutionary slogans and paintings in public places to galvanise the country’s communist revolution through ideological imagery.

This form of artwork has developed through various stages through to the more modern artwork or graffiti we see on decaying urban environments today.  Some have identified graffiti as a phenomenon and art form that began in New York’s outer boroughs and reached great heights in the early ’80s.

Some art historians perceive graffiti as a method of ‘reclaiming public space’ or displaying an art form for wide appreciation for free.  Against this opponents regard it as an unwanted nuisance, or as expensive vandalism requiring repair of consumer or civic property.  To counter such accusations graffiti artists suggest that the presence of graffiti contributes to a general sense of creativity or urban enhancement where only squalor and  crime exists.

Some of the ideological ideas behind graffiti can be summarised as below:

  • Anarchism
  • Anti-Consumerism
  • Community Ownership/Sharing
  • Contemporary Art
  • Property is theft!
  • Anti-modernisation
  • Subversion

Football graffiti of some sort going back in time is nothing new.  It’s fair to say that its artistic creativity as a statement of contemporary art, especially in the seventies, would be negligible. Whilst today most football graffiti seen in mainland Europe is a high level piece of art work that transmits coded statements, in the past it was mostly a question of simple messages, plain speaking and more often than not bad spelling attempts.

Away fans arriving via football train specials would spray comments about opposition fans in strategically positioned areas of a town or when visiting rival towns.  Likewise, home fans would spray semi-threatening messages near railway stations that were meant for visiting fans to see upon entering the city.   In Manchester in the 1970’s ‘MUFC rules OK’ was often sprayed on old buildings.

With the appearance in England of modern sanitised stadiums all closely guarded by CCTV positions and modern fencing it has been a long time since spray paint played an active part in the British football supporters repertoire. Whilst abroad some stadia will have areas set aside for fan graffiti, the UK’s new approach to football watching means that vandalism of this type is strictly off limits.  Football graffiti had its heyday in the early 1970s when it gave the former crumbling stadiums that extra almost indefinable character and feel.   As noted worn red brick and corrugated iron surrounds of the terraces became a per­fect canvas for budding artists with something to say about a club or rivals.

Not all graffiti was hooligan related.   Old Trafford today may be the hubristic pride of modern football man, but the streets around Old Trafford today, whilst not head to toe in graffiti, sees wall art paying homage to the great Manchester United sides of the past.

Graffiti and its relation to football in the UK has almost certainly declined due to closed-circuit television and increased ground patrol procedures. Supporters today even struggle to be allowed to use other outlets to express their feelings via banners, flags and at some clubs even scarfs have become unfashionable. Today, urban graffiti doesn’t sit well against local authorities environmentally friendly policies and even less so when football fans are involved.

Bar one or two examples graffiti at a UK stadium is near an impossibility to find these days.

The 2003 Anti-Social Behaviour Act effectively became Britain’s foremost anti-graffiti legislation.  On top of this the Keep Britain Tidy movement has a high profile anti-graffiti manifesto and has forwarded supporting proposals via press releases, to publications such as the Daily Mail.  These bodies have predominantly pushed for the issuing of on the spot fines for graffiti offenders.

Some countries have a less draconian approach to stopping vandalism.   In an effort to reduce graffiti in public space, many cities will have designated walls or areas exclusively for use by graffiti artists. With the movement to the Amsterdam Arena, Ajax Amsterdam took the opportunity to allow supporters to spray paint club symbols via graffiti on an area of the new stadium.  This wall behind one goal can be removed when the Dutch international team or European finals are being played at the ground and repositioned once again come domestic matches.

In Europe and South America football graffiti is still highly visible. Many prominent teams across Europe have stadia where fan graffiti, dedicated to club ‘ultra’ groups or team legends, are displayed around the stadia either inside or outside.   As mentioned with Ajax, clubs themselves have made extra efforts to make specified area of the stadium areas where graffiti is allowed to be created.

One prominent example of this was within the home end at the Gerhard Hanappi in Vienna where graffiti dedicated to club fan groups exists. During Euro 2008 these areas were simply covered up by tournaments organisers who used the stadium as a fan park overspill area. Outside the ground meanwhile a wide range of less creative graffiti exists from abusing former managers to club owners.

Another prominent area is that surrounding Gate 13 of the Apostolos Nikolaidis Stadium of Panathinaikos in Athens. Due to the stadium’s old construction, a dearth of space and the dense surrounding urbanization much of the graffiti may become a scene of the past if the club move to a newer more modern ground. Negotiations are currently under way between the Greek government, the Municipality of Athens, and the football, basketball, volleyball and amateur divisions of the club in order to facilitate the building of a new, comprehensive sports complex to house all of the 21 departments of Panathinaikos brand of sport.

In Naples you will find graffiti dedicated to Maradona; similarly the same type of creativity exists in Buenos Aires to the same man.  Contrast that with Stoke where there is little by the way of graffiti dedicated to Sir Stanley Matthews, rather immortalisation is done via a civic sponsored statue created from the funds of the public purse.

The street art backlash is catching up in Europe however, and with it graffiti cultures around football stadia have become less welcome. By 2020 its likely that most of the inner stadium graffiti we know today will have gone completely if not that art that surrounds the stadium.

With the growth of new stadia the replacement of formerly old crumbling grounds has meant many pieces of art are dying out and is often pushed out to hidden areas of the city.  Unsanctioned art has become a problem for councils and city leaders instead of the football clubs.  In the urban landscapes graffiti has become more coded transmitting an everyday statement in an abstract format.  Messages make interpretation difficult yet these images often still transmit football relevant themes in ways that are informed by football values and fandom.

Where things have moved on, particularly in a country like Germany, is in ‘Sticker art ‘also known as sticker bombing, slap tagging, and sticker tagging.  This has progressed from a small sticker on a wall to a sophisticated well thought-out form of stadium fan art.  Messages about a club and its fans groupings are contained in an image or message and this is displayed alongside a website reference where people can find out more.  These stickers often promote a political agenda, comment on a club policy, or serve to comprise club advertising campaigns.

Stickering forms next part of this series of articles which first appeared in 2008.

Click here to see our album dedicated to football artwork.