Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal: Analyzing Unintentional Expressions of Art


by Emily Nagler, Haina Lu, Meagan Johnson, Dylan Kanaan, and Frank Martin

I believe that the short Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal is, in fact, making an assertive claim about the world.  The major claim is that Graffiti Removal is a form of art.  It is comparable to the art of artists like Mark Rothko, or other, early to mid-20th century artists.  The film is attempting to claim that graffiti removal procedures have various styles and is a complex art form.  Anyone who removes graffiti is unaware of their artistic creations, but the film goes as far as to label the various “styles” of graffiti removal art.  They are removing art, but in turn creating art.  I will admit some of the graffiti removal examples do look like art that professional artists create.  The film treats the procedure of removing graffiti as art.  The removal of graffiti is a process completely by the city or the owner of whatever has graffiti on it.  The film treats what seems like a grunt work job the same as professionally painting.  – Frank Martin

I agree with Frank in that the short Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal does make an assertive claim about the real world. The film begins by stating that people make art every day, usually subconsciously, and shows this through its proposition that graffiti removal is a form of art. This generalized claim is demonstrated by the attempt to show how graffiti removal is an artistic endeavor, thereby making the claim assertive and applicable to the real world. The film uses acclaimed artists, such as Mark Rothko, in order to establish the similarities and connections between the art of graffiti removal and that of what viewers would consider as artists. Another assertion that the film makes is merely through its title. By calling the art of graffiti removal subconscious, the film touches on the fact that while most viewers would not consider this to be a legitimate form of art, we can somehow, through our subconscious, recognize the genius of the film’s argued form of art. Through this, the film is able to take its assertive stance, and further its attempt to legitimize graffiti removal as an impressive, intricate, and professional form of art. – Emily Nagler    

Additionally, the structure of the film further emphasizes the categorization of graffiti removal as art. In the short documentary, McCormick provides viewers with many details regarding the city’s graffiti policies, how the workers carry out their jobs, how they might choose and match paint colors, and how the shape of the graffiti they deal with affect the shape of their cover up art, detailing the process and timeline as you would expect from an art movement. The filmography also skillfully combines shots of the city scene from industrial bridges to residential home towns. These clips are often long and appear frequently, in between the more informative periods of the film. By inserting these realistic shots of the city as a backdrop, it allows viewers to see the city itself as an art piece on the whole, making graffiti and graffiti removal a detailed subset of this artwork. The juxtaposition of large industrial landscapes next to graffiti, something that is seen as a nuisance and must be removed, emphasizes the subconscious aspect of this process as an art. Like building bridges or complexes, the conscious goal behind architecture and graffiti removal is functionality and structure, but unconsciously art is created in both situations that add to the culture of the city.  – Haina Lu

In fact, the final shot of the film features the woman on her bike, the camera follows her as she passes graffiti removal. In a continuous shot, it follows her until she next rides by a highway— reinforcing the juxtaposition between this claimed art form and the art form intrinsic to the unintentional design and structure of the city itself. The camera then slows to hold a view of the highway as the entire shot fades to a white block that mimics graffiti removal art, directly asserting this relationship. This again establishes that the film is not only making an assertion about graffiti removal itself as an art form, but also making a broader claim that subconscious art can be found elsewhere. Through shots like the last, the film even attempts to train viewers where/how to identify this form in other places. Additionally, the film makes a claim about the relationship between art and oppression. At multiple points, the ‘ruling class’ is referenced, and it’s detailed that even among the most conservative of “them” (the ruling class) they are still ultimately funding/supporting beauty and art despite their attempts to oppress— serving as a blatant and open mockery of particular members of society, a reclamation of power away from those who abuse it.  This social commentary contributes to viewers’ interpretive framing, further establishing the realness value of the film.  – Dylan Kanaan


While some argue graffiti removal is the solution to vandalism, others view graffiti removal as a communicative expression. The random placement of tetris-like blocks and rectangles have taken over the blue collar communities of Portland. The unconscious, collaborative, and accidental process of graffiti removal is an art itself. Similar to a professional artist, the removers meticulously choose colors, brush strokes, and architectural integrity–this is an instance of the repressed and conservative’s self-expression leaking out. The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal begins to imply human beings have an innateness towards creativity. These slabs of grey and white paint do not add to a conventional aesthetic, but showcase the inner desires of the proletariats (something that cannot be seen in the Met or Louvre). The documentarian, Matt McCormack,  implies these subconscious works of art can pass as masterpieces as it bears striking resemblances to abstract expressionism and minimalism. The documentary asserts, or rather reiterates the widespread idea that the best and most authentic art is subjective. Despite its slightly humorous and satirical nature, The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal acknowledges that such avant-garde creations contribute to some of the most creative forces in the world today. As the camera rolls, the camera catches the mundane and bare city monuments (the rusty train tracks, barren factories, and run-down oil drums). Graffiti removal is a political and radical stance to reclaim control of the spaces lost to industrialization and commercialism.  – Meagan Johnson

One thought on “Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal: Analyzing Unintentional Expressions of Art

  1. Ian Bryce Jones May 28, 2020 / 10:25 am

    Emily/Haina/Meagan/Dylan/Frank – I’m rather surprised at how straightforwardly you took the film, and McCormick’s treatment of his subjects!

    I’ve used this example in several classes, and often students’ reaction is immediately to characterize it as an un-serious “mockumentary.” From there, I ask them to take a step back, ask what (if anything) about the subject if “fake,” in what (if any) ways the filmmaker is “lying,” etc. In this way, I can get students to question their knee-jerk reaction to characterize the film as a pseudo-documentary.

    Obviously, that’s not the case here – you’ve avoided the “mockumentary” trap altogether. Well done, on that count! That means my task for your group is a different one.

    I think you’re all basically right that McCormick does take an assertive stance: that he points to something in our world, and draws our attention to it. (Hence, it would be inaccurate to describe the film as a “mockumentary.”) But I also think that we can open up a gray area between a film that is making a straightforward claim, and a film that is lying. There’s also the possibility that McCormick is being *ironic* – not exactly lying, but intending us to take something more out of the film than what the narration straightforwardly tells us.

    Meagan is the only group member to point out that the film is humorous – a valid and important observation! How do we square the humor of the film with the rest of the points that it seems to be making? How do we square the points that Dylan rightly makes – that the film offers a seemingly quite sincere call for the masses to reclaim an aesthetic power over cityscapes dominated by the straightforward commercial and industrial needs of the ruling class – with its somewhat smart-ass presentation?

    I wouldn’t be so bold as to suggest that there’s one single way to square these things. But I’ll leave your group (and the rest of the class reading these posts) with a challenge: to think more about the ways that irony can inflect a filmmaker’s stance.

    In speech, it’s possible to temper or undercut straightforward assertions with degrees of irony. Is it possible to blend an *assertive* stance with, say, a *sarcastic* one?


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