When police arrived to a tunnel in downtown Porto Alegre, Brazil, having received word that some youths were tagging its walls with graffiti, it must have seemed like a pretty clear case of vandalism. But after a few of the culprits were handcuffed, ready to be taken to the station, the officers realized that the group was armed not with paint, but with simple cleaning supplies so the police allowed them to finish up. Turns out, so much soot from passing cars had collected on the tunnel walls that a selective cleaning could spell out a simple message: For a clean Porto Alegre. A short while later, they got a response.While the practice of "reverse graffiti" is nothing new, many artists have used the technique to create real masterpieces. This latest piece, however, likely serves as a reminder to passing motorists just how much pollution is generated by their vehicles over time, not unlike the images of blackened lungs often used to warn people of the dangers of smoking.
City officials faced quite a predicament: Should they follow the activists' request by cleaning the entire tunnel, or allow the message to stay until more soot collects to erase it?
Quite often, such works of reverse graffiti aren't so confrontational and can actually be quite beautiful. A couple years back, we told you about the Reverse Graffiti Project, wherein artist Paul Curtis created a mural in San Francisco's Broadway tunnel featuring plants native to the area that might otherwise be growing there. With giant stencils and a pressure-washer, the ghostly images were cleaned into the sooty tunnel walls.
Alexandre Orion, another Brazilian reverse graffiti artist, garnered some attention for his skull-emblazoned piece he cleaned onto a tunnel in Sao Paulo--particularly from authorities. Unable to charge him for a crime, city officials were spurred on by his art into cleaning every tunnel in the city.
Although selectively cleaning grimy public places to send a message has long been performed by artists and eco-activists hoping to warn of the dangers of pollution, recent years have seen marketing firms getting in on the act as well. As the New York Times points out, companies like GreenGraffiti have begun using the technique to create advertisements for the likes of Starbucks and MTV, often to the puzzlement of authorities who aren't certain of its legality.
Jim Bowes, the founder of GreenGraffiti, see the eco-friendly advertisement as an improvement over more traditional forms, telling the NY Times: "In place of sticking two billboards on the main highway, you're actually investing in a community."
While advertisers have caught on to the effectiveness of reverse graffiti to sell products, activists are still finding it a good technique for getting their point across as well. "[Tagging with paint] dirties the city and makes it ugly. We wanted to show there is another way to pass a message along to the population," said Eduardo Biermann, who helped clean the phrase "For a clean Porto Alegre" onto the tunnel wall.
Apparently someone got that message; A few days later the tunnel was cleaned.