Last year was a bizarre period, certainly one for the books. At the beginning of January 2020, reports of an unknown syndrome started to appear on the news sporadically. There had been an outbreak in a Chinese metropolis. That city was Wuhan and, the mysterious illness became one of the most frequently used words all over the world in that year: Corona. A new kind of virus, SARS COV-2, to be exact, causing a disease called Covid-19. Apparently, it was very contagious and possibly dangerous. Precautions were taken to prevent further prevalence, but it had been too late. A pandemic had started. Corona has been spreading relentlessly around the world ever since.
“I remember watching the entire beginning of the pandemic in China on television. I thought this would never spread to the rest of the world”Laia recognizes with a sense of disbelief when asked about how she remembers the beginning of 2020.
“I thought it would be one more catastrophe, like all those that are experienced in many countries but end quickly.” Country after country was affected. Skeptical and hesitant reactions soon turned into pure paranoia, which seemed to morph into a kind of fatigue or negligence over time. Both individuals and governments acted upon the new circumstances. All of a sudden, our globalized world showed direct downsides of connectivity. Amongst others, traveling was identified as a catalyst of the pandemic. It comes as no surprise also Graffiti culture would become affected eventually, as societies struggled to tackle the new situation on all levels. Fist bumps, hand sanitizer, social distancing, contact restrictions, remote work, superspreaders. Video calls, home workouts, homeschooling, home office, systematically relevant professions, curfews, travel restrictions, lockdowns. Some buzzwords gained momentum quickly. They manifest how language both mimics and shapes our way of thinking. What’s more, these concepts reveal a whole new set of rules and external factors that changed our behavior and modified our reality to a new normal. The world was changing fast, and we tried to adjust. But was it all just bad?
Dissecting this pandemic’s symptoms and semantics could make one think writers should have been the first ones to adjust. Writers are used to disguising their faces, often wearing gloves and respirators for protection. Habits that were widespread already prepandemic in our niche became the norm. But writers also usually love to travel, and they are rather free-spirited beings that do not respond well to restrictions. The world never felt more at stake in recent years than in 2020. Not to mention other challenging issues: open racism, institutional violence, fake news, presidential elections in the United States, Brexit, Moria, and sadly, this list could go on. The bushfires in Australia were no metaphor; the world was, in fact, burning.
But let us rewind to a time before masked faces were a common sight in the broad public. We asked ten Graffiti artists with diverse backgrounds about their personal journeys throughout the year 2020. From Asia to Northern and Southern Europe, from East Coast to West Coast in the United States, we spoke to enthusiasts from all over the planet. Enjoy insights by Alone (Italy), Cloak (Malaysia), Func (France), Kae (USA), LaFranz (Italy), Laia (Spain), Pheo (Denmark), Post (USA), Ribes (Italy), and Wane (USA).
“We didn’t take it seriously because it started on the other side of the planet, and we always think when it is far away, it wouldn’t impact us,” Func says. The Paris resident quickly changed his mind, though. “I wasn’t scared at first… But I quickly started to remember all the dystopian movies I’m watching all the time and thinking it could be the end of days,” he continues with a smirk, seemingly trying to take the critical situation with humor. Laia and Func address what probably a majority can relate to. Disbelief, refusal, derealization, or feeling like being in a bad movie. With the omnipresence of technological devices, an abundance of information is guaranteed. Whether on news broadcasts or social media, updates on recent developments are available at all times. While this might accelerate global developments and business, there is also a downside. More information does not create more order. The universal law of thermodynamics describes this as entropy. Thus, more than ever, one needs to be media savvy to process the plethora. “It seemed like the world turned upside down overnight, and the future became so uncertain. In the early days of the pandemic, there was so much misinformation floating around out there, so it was really hard to know what was true or false or even know what to expect next,” Wane says.
FEELING TRAPPED – DOWNSIDES
“When the pandemic was starting, it seemed all normal; I kept on as usual. However, as time passed, much negative news came. …I started to demoralize myself. I had so much free time but at the same time very few opportunities,” Ribes admits. The native of northern Italy faced a struggle of many. With increasing precautions and restrictions, individual freedom got limited. Social interactions had to be reduced; people were forced to stay close to their homes to stop distributing the virus. As a result, many perceived themselves to be deprived. “I felt trapped as a lot of things couldn’t be achieved,” as Cloak from Malaysia puts it. “Most of my Graffiti tours and spraycations were put to a halt, and there was a lot of uncertainty,” he continues. “To be honest, I wasn’t mentally prepared for the pandemic as well as the lockdown as I’m someone who is outgoing and always loves to create new pieces outdoors.” Almost everybody was confronted with similar problems like isolation and constraint. Over time, not simultaneously, with regional variations, as waves of infections created constant ups and downs. A rising number of cases was usually followed by amplified measures and vice versa, creating a limbo.
Apart from physical wellbeing, also mental health gained importance. A lot of people dealt with fear, uncertainty, and a decline in motivation. “…When I try to remember those two and a half months [referring to the first lockdown], the memories are hazy in my head.
Every day was exactly the same, and obviously, I couldn’t paint,” Laia states. “The last wall was kinda weird, saying goodbye to your friends for a while, entering a very dystopic future,” Func adds.
“The city [was] in fear. So people were locked in. The streets were kind of deserted. I went about life as I usually do, but with a mask on. Graffiti wise the pandemic brought a lot of people out. People that were already doing their thing started going harder. And people I’ve never seen up in my life started doing bad Graffiti all over the streets. A lot of businesses had to close, so they let the Graffiti run on everything for the most part, so it was like 10 new writers a day were born. Shit kind of took the essence out of it for me,” Post reveals about his experiences as a resident of New York.
Without being able to travel and to paint with your friends, and without all the events and Graffiti jams, it’s hard to feel always inspired.LaFranz
“Los Angeles had its waves of lockdowns and curfews that were implemented. Painting has been a sort of push and pull situation. Mostly due to the fact that I have a family of my own and am the head of household who is responsible for holding shit down for five people. So, in the beginning, we were being super careful about everything we did. As time went on, the confusion progressed. And being sort of a street person, so to speak, being home for long periods of time, really took a toll,” Kae continues. “The uncertainty of what was coming was very confusing.” All of a sudden, Wane wondered how to organize everyday basics, “the biggest struggle was not necessarily having to stay home, but the uncertainty around some of the most basic things we were all so used to. The changes had me wondering about things I never had to stress too much about, like how I was going to get food from the supermarket, pay bills, stay safe during the madness. But perhaps most importantly, it had me wondering when I would see my friends and family again.” What once was normal apparently changed into something challenging. LaFranz continues to emphasize the lack of external stimulus: “Without being able to travel and to paint with your friends, and without all the events and Graffiti jams, it’s hard to feel always inspired. I do not live in a big city, so it was not so easy.” In lockdown periods, new routines had to be established. Former variety exchanged for monotony. On the contrary, time, which is usually scarce, was not a limiting factor anymore. So, how to turn all of this around and regain confidence?
NECESSITY IS THE MOTHER OF INVENTION – UPSIDES
“Back then, frustration was the main feeling overall: deleting all traveling plans and suffering those crazy restrictions of freedom like ‘curfew’ or being ‘forced to stay at home’. I’m personally a loner in a sense I enjoy the time with myself, I like to paint with no-one and, always take solitude as an opportunity,” Alone from Milan reveals. “As a graphic designer, lockdown didn’t change a thing for me; I’m still glued to the computer. Whatever… the nerd life,” laughs Func, admitting at least his profession was unaltered.
Pheo tried to take the good with the bad: “My job, although required that I worked as usual, but for a short period, I worked from home. This gave me opportunities to make a piece or two during lunch break. I tried to do this as often as possible, most of the time alone, but sometimes it was possible to meet up with a couple of others. The advantage of Graffiti is that you can join up outside and keep the required distance. This opportunity meant a lot to me. Being able to keep up with my painting gave a lot of new energy and let a bit of positivity into a time where things looked bad.” So, after a time of frustration and grief came an acceptance. The circumstances were undeniable. The best one could do to cope with the situation was to seek possibilities rather than focusing on problems. Thus, some started to practice their craft to step their game up.
The changes had me wondering about things I never had to stress too much about, like how I was going to get food from the supermarket, pay bills, stay safe during the madness.Kaer
“I concentrated on sketching, to find out new pieces, that I could do as soon as all this situation would end,” says Ribes. “Sketching for hours daily became the highlight of the day,” Wane replies. “I don’t really sketch, just doodle thousands of throw-ups, straight letters, and hand styles just like any other day. Everything I’ve done before the pandemic… got the same focus throughout the pandemic.” Post highlights his already established routines and shows resilience. “I drew a lot, but my mind was a little blocked, so I changed my online store. I thought of new products to produce and ways to improve my projects. I also designed new tote bags,” Laia adds. “In the first lockdown, I sketched a lot on paper but also in digital. I did some collaboration with my CTA’s crewmates, and I had fun customizing some home stuff, like restyling old chairs and painting my alphabet on glass,”
LaFranz continues. “I’m just doing my best to remain productive, thoughtful, and pushing myself to learn some new tricks when I have nothing but time. For example, I spent more time on digital illustrations and more sketches for future graffiti works (you never know when a sketch might come in handy!),” Cloak concludes. “I’ve just noticed how the lockdown has sort of slowed me down, in a good way, though.” Pheo also took the time to lay the groundwork for future projects, “I have spent a lot of time planning for color combinations, letters, productions, etc. I have enjoyed being able to spend a lot of time to immerse and develop my letters. I have been productive and created a lot more sketches than usual, so I am well prepared for the upcoming walls and productions this year.”
“I can probably count on both hands the times I actually sat down and sketched something in the last 10 years. Until now of course. I decided to get an iPad where I was able to sketch up pieces directly on the surfaces I planned to paint in order to analyze color and structure,” Kae goes on. He did not just think of himself though, “aside from that, I took some time to send friends of mine sketches I drew up of their names. I also hadn’t owned a set of fancy blackbook markers in over 10 years.” Func and his friends took sketching to a new level and added a social aspect since physical contacts were reduced. “During the first lockdown we created a private Instagram account moderated by Craz and Fred1 called ‘ciki3000 aka Can I kick it 3000’. A bunch of selected stylewriting addicts joined the group, and we battled some names days after days. As much as the rhythm started to be insane, we counted more than 2500 posts at the end of the lockdown with mad styles and creative tries. That was fun and a good way to get to know each other a little bit more. It was basically a French- German initiative project.” Their initiative creatively utilized technology and pushed their individual style developments through interactive feedback. Cloak could benefit from technology as well, but he had a different approach. “I was physically and mentally prepared to go to Taiwan to paint a cruise ship, but unfortunately, I couldn’t make it, and I had to ask my best pals in Taiwan to execute the plan on my behalf. The project was a success at the end, as we had constant communication with each member of the team.”
The less people on the streets… the more you stand out. Otherwise, it’s almost like hiding in plain sight.Post
Writers are usually an adaptive crowd. Overcoming obstacles is constantly part of the game; thus, writers are masters of finding creative solutions. “There was a lockdown. But I was out and about as usual. On my ‘essential worker’ shit. As for bombing I could carry on if I wanted to. I would paint in public in broad day when there was no pandemic. And did the same thing during the pandemic and actually got caught. The less people on the streets… the more you stand out. Otherwise, it’s almost like hiding in plain sight. And at night, everyone had to be indoors.
All public transportation was stopped: trains, busses, taxis, Ubers, Lyfts, everything. If you had your own car and were outside, you stood out because any cars were out. So you had to have a reason to be out if you got pulled over, which was something that would most likely happen. That made it difficult to do Graffiti in the streets for a while,” Post explains what kind of problems he faced on the streets of New York. However, he came up with a solution: “If I can’t or don’t want to do Graffiti in the streets, I take it underground. The thing about doing Graffiti underground, is that none of it last past a 48 hours. So most of it, if not 99%, doesn’t get seen or pics taken other than my own pics or pics I allow certain graffiti photographers to go get before the Graff gets cleaned. And in the world of social media, if people don’t see pics of what you are doing nonstop, they will think you are inactive. I like it that way, though. There’s so much shit I’ve done in 2020 that didn’t touch social media.”
“Milan early 2020 was completely fucked up until May. This was the first lockdown, then summer arrived, and more loose rules together with it. I had super much fun painting spots that were super hard before lockdown, security was pretty much understaffed, and we caught the opportunity,” says Alone. Milan, the biggest city in the northern Italian region of Lombardy, was hit the hardest by Corona early on in the pandemic in Europe. A skyrocketing number of infections meant strict restrictions from the beginning. “I did some quick road trips with good friends, and everything was nice again. Then a second lockdown arrived in autumn. I was more organized, and the cops were more chill, but my personal motivation was beaten down by these stupid rules again. Instead of painting, I concentrated more on some other passions related to the mountains, finding back the freedom I lost twice,” he continues. To him, escapism is a means to deal with the stress city life can entail. “So the big issue for me was meeting too much police and army everywhere, always checking even when just walking. This pressure sucks so much; I thought, ‘fuck, Orwell is getting closer and closer’…Train writers deal with adapting to different environments every day. We don’t need open bars or restaurants to do what we like: a bush, a construction area, or a parking lot can be cozier than anything else sometimes, but all this control was way too much in the first, super hard, lockdown in Milan. I respect people who were struggling at the hospital or dying – but paying the consequences of stupid people out there who have no clue about surviving alone (or with your relatives), it was too much as well.” Alone addresses a dilemma: a double bind situation of being caught up in between responsibility for others yet feeling the need for individual freedom. Kae admits having mixed feelings, too: “somehow I managed to pull off some interesting things that I now reflect on and have some sort of bitter-sweet guilt attached to. This is after really seeing the effects this whole shit had on everybody, including family members outside of my household.”
The main thing the pandemic has taught me is that we really took even our most basic freedoms for granted, whether it is the freedom to travel, the freedom to paint outside, and even the freedom to spend time with the ones we love.Wane
ANTICIPATION IS THE GREATEST JOY – OUTLOOK
“I would love to reunite with people, …party, and have the freedom to explore places without fear,” Cloak bursts out in response to what he looks forward to. Post simply emphasizes continuity: “No lockouts, the game don’t stop.” “Travel. Travel again. I’m pretty sure my first destination will be Germany,” LaFranz states. The answer is unisono – Laia, Ribes, Pheo, Alone, Wane, and Func want to see the world and, even more, embrace their friends. Humans are social beings, after all. “I want to take my kids and wife out to a really nice dinner. I used to spoil them when it came to going out to eat. It’s something I hold really close, as I never really had that structure as a kid where we sat down to enjoy a meal as a family. So watching my family enjoy themselves together is something I value,” Kae shares. Drawing a conclusion as of now seems hard since the pandemic is still not over. The virus or its mutations might become endemic. Yet, some things are certain. For better or worse, Corona will be a catalyst in some aspects. Digitalization took a big step forward. While tourism and imports slowed down, at least nature could catch a short break. Global repercussions are undeniable and inevitable. Thus, the best thing to do is to concentrate on positive aspects. Try to benefit from the extra time. Invest energy into your passion; maybe go painting more. Take a moment to rethink, focus on what can be done now – like sketching, for instance.
We encourage you to be creative! This applies to both professional and purely passionate contexts of your artistic output. Quite a few writers managed to invest their surplus of time wisely. Graffiti media flourished in 2020. There was time for creation, curation, and consumption, whether magazines, blogs, books, videos, and podcasts. “I took the opportunity to put together a fanzine-book called Graffiti Minded. For a long time, I wanted to do something on paper, and thanks to the lockdown, I did it together with all my beautiful friends around the globe, more or less locked, like me,” Alone says. “…Better times will come,” Laia is certain. “For sure, I painted way less compared to the previous year, and every action now considers new elements. But those new things are not always unpleasant! Like, wearing a mask everywhere is not that bad,” Alone concludes with a smile. Wane has humble reasoning, “the main thing the pandemic has taught me is that we really took even our most basic freedoms for granted, whether it is the freedom to travel, the freedom to paint outside, and even the freedom to spend time with the ones we love.”
TEXT – @team_flightmode Special thanks to all contributing artists & partners