A Brief History of Graffiti, TV review: Wot, no Banksy? This was refreshingly off-the-wall

From ancient daubings to today's street artists whose work sells for six-figures, Dr Richard Clay explored humans' desire to leave their mark on walls

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The Independent Culture

I am just back from holiday in France, which got me reminiscing about childhood vacances. We'd go off in search of ancient cave paintings that my parents had read about and spend a fruitless day squinting at rocks, underwhelmed by faint etchings. If only A Brief History of Graffiti's presenter Dr Richard Clay had been there to inject some (albeit occasionally self-indulgent) enthusiasm into proceedings.

"I do love art that's best seen on your hand and knees," he said, on all fours in a dank cave in Burgundy, France, examining a 30,000 year-old painting of a mammoth.

From these ancient daubings to today's street artists whose work sells for six-figures, Dr Clay explored humans' desire to leave their mark on walls. In a Fair Isle knit and suit trousers with a directional haircut, he looked half passionate professor, half over-grown indie kid and both these identities were evident.

 

The etchings of triumphant Red Army soldiers on the walls of the Reichstag were "genuinely moving", while French contemporary street artists Lek and Sowot had him talking about "graff", things "getting heavy" and doing special handshakes, like a fanboy meeting his guitar heroes. Banksy, our big name, only got a fleeting mention (perhaps to do with copyright issues, but still, it was refreshing).

When Dr Clay started getting overexcited, the artists kept things real. He asked Lek and Sowot about why they'd chosen to graffiti the inaccessible space underneath their temporary exhibition at Paris' Palais de Tokyo. "We don't intellectualise things the way you just did," said Sowot, nonchalant as hell. "Our only intuition is that it would be damn cool to do something in the dark, inside Europe's biggest contemporary art centre." Were they influenced by their forebears, pressed the professor, the likes of French street art pioneer Jean-Michel Basquiat? "We haven't banged Madonna," came the answer. Dr Clay looked like all his Christmases had come at once.

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