Moving America Forward

The Only Time You’ll Want to See Graffiti All Over Your Neighborhood

January 9, 2014
The Only Time You’ll Want to See Graffiti All Over Your Neighborhood
A wall featuring "reverse graffiti" on New York City's Houston St. on June 6, 2013 Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Street artists like Banksy, Shepard Fairey and the late Keith Haring blurred the line between graffiti and art, paving the way for new forms of urban art. As seen on this wall on Houston St. in New York City, reverse graffiti involves selectively peeling away old paint (or cleaning off grime) from a wall to create a new work of art. In recent years, New York City has seen a proliferation of officially sanctioned and sponsored street art. Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A Spurge Hawkmoth depicted in a reverse graffiti project in England Flickr, Kevan Davis
A reverse graffiti project sponsored by Green Works, a brand of eco-friendly cleaning products, in San Francisco. The artist, "Moose," a pioneer of reverse graffiti — also known as "clean tagging" — created a mural by washing away years worth of pollution accumulated at the entrance of the city's Broadway Tunnel. Flickr, Valerie Hinojosa
A section of the Green Works project in San Francisco showing indigenous plant life Flickr, Valerie Hinojosa
A panoramic view of the 140-ft. reverse graffiti mural created by Moose at the entrance of the Broadway Tunnel in San Francisco Flickr, Tyler Howarth
The clean street art known as reverse graffiti has gone mainstream, and it's brought an environmental message along for the ride.

Graffiti usually involves defacing a clean surface. But for a growing number of street artists, a dirty wall is a blank canvas just waiting to be washed. Instead of tagging city walls with spray paint, these artists are power-washing dirt, grime and dust from outdoor surfaces, while using stencils to create stunning works of art. The trend, dubbed reverse graffiti, has gained popularity in recent years, thanks in part to Paul “Moose” Curtis — the unofficial “godfather” of this style of street art. A native of England, Curtis has created some of the most iconic pieces of “clean tagging” in the U.S. In 2008, he was commissioned by Green Works, the maker of plant-based cleaning products, to wash a 140-foot mural onto a filthy wall in downtown San Francisco’s Broadway Tunnel. Curtis chose images of plants that were once indigenous to California to give the project a theme of green living. “Every mark is an environmental message, in whatever I do,” he told Modern Hieroglyphics. “It’s written in our dirt so it has a resonance to it, like the truth appearing semi-ghostlike from the fabric of the city.”

MORE: How Kitesurfing Sparked a Green Energy Revolution

The idea of creating clean art in place of traditional graffiti, which is often seen as destructive, has resonated with environmentally conscious artists around the country. In New York City, a trio of green activists launched the Greene Street NYC project in order to spread awareness about clean art. The project, which recently reached its fundraising goal on Kickstarter, aims to make clean art along Houston Street. And in St. Petersburg, Fla., artist Carrie Matteoli was awarded a $1,000 grant by Awesome Tampa Bay, a group of philanthropists, “to identify and transform dirty, dirty locations around the Tampa Bay area” through reverse graffiti. Her first piece was completed just before Thanksgiving.

While Moose says he’s been arrested a few times in pursuit of his art, he hopes it can change the way people think about graffiti. “I replaced the criminal element of graffiti with a positive process,” he says, “restoring a surface, rather than spraying and damaging it.”