San Francisco's Broadway tunnel is a busy thoroughfare in the midst of the city. Its walls are thick with grime and patched with remnants of spray-painted graffiti tags. The talented English reverse graffiti artist Paul "Moose" Curtis, a pioneer of the art form, recently chose this tunnel as a tableau for a mural depicting plants indigenous to California which was sponsored by Green Works, a plant-based line of cleaning products. Moose, who has been cleaning the streets of the UK and beyond for the past ten years, uses detergent and a wire brush, the tools of many a cleaner, to work his magic.
Reverse graffiti is form of street art that involves carving into the dirt and dust that surrounds us. Artists subtract from a surface in order to create a negative image within the positive, often quite dark layer of grime. They use methods as simple as dragging their finger across a dirty car window or as elaborate as carving elaborate stencils, which they then mount on a surface and spray with a high pressure water hose, to impress a finely wrought illustration or message. Reverse graffiti is a form of activist art, in that the work often draws attention not only to a particular image etched into a surface, but also the extent to which these surfaces - and our cities - are caked with pollution.
Moose told Richard Morgan of the New York Times Magazine that he preferred the "less sinister" terms "clean tagging" or "grime writing" to "reverse graffiti." He explains:
"It's refacing," he says, "not defacing. Just restoring a surface to its original state. It's very temporary. It glows and it twinkles, and then it fades away."
To pay for industrial scrubbers, he has sold some of his reverse graffiti as advertising. But mostly he sticks to his own art. Critics, like the City Council in Leeds, have accused him of breaking the law, but for what? Cleaning without a permit? "Once you do this," he says, "you make people confront whether or not they like people cleaning walls or if they really have a problem with personal expression."
Alexandre Orion is another prominent reverse graffiti artist-environmental activist.
According to Environmental Graffiti's Linda McCormick,
A few years ago he adorned a transport tunnel in Sao Paolo with a mural consisting of a series of skulls to remind drivers of the detrimental impact their emissions have on the planet. The Brazilian authorities were incensed but couldn't actually charge him with anything so they instead cleaned the tunnel. At first they cleaned only the parts Alexandre had cleared but after the artist switched to the opposite wall they had to clean that too. In the end, the authorities decided to wash every tunnel in the city.