Articles

Cleaning Up Public Art

Ben Long, "Owl Truck Drawing"
Ben Long, "Owl Truck Drawing" (2011; all images courtesy the artist; click to enlarge)

CHICAGO — As long as there have been cars, there has been automotive grime. And as long as there has been grime, there has been grime graffiti. You know, the sarcastic messages drawn into the dirt with the end of a finger, saying “Wash Me Now!” or “Clean Me Quick!” British artist Ben Long has decided to raise this casual form of street notation to the level of public art.

For about 10 years, Long has been drawing pictures into the grimy rear doors of trucks, with the permission of the truck owners, in order to create an open air, mobile gallery. Recently a local council in London, the London Thames Gateway Development Corporation for London Borough of Hackney and London Borough of Tower Hamlets to be precise, commissioned Long to do the same thing as an official work of public art. For the series, titled The Great Travelling Art Exhibition, Long traces pictures into the grime with his fingertips, using common images of animals and landscapes: two wild horses bucking into the air, a stag against a backdrop of trees, an owl on a branch, a boy playing with his dog. In a recent interview, Long said: “I prefer to use imagery devoid of any narrative drive, and I look at a lot of decorative ephemera for my source material. Nature is a prevailing theme in the art and symbolism of all cultures, and I think that animals have always been used to imply idyllic states of the human condition — beauty, power, freedom, loyalty.”

Ben Long, "Fighter Pilot Truck Drawing"
Ben Long, "Fighter Pilot Truck Drawing" (detail; click to enlarge)

Long’s aim is to present familiar imagery in unfamiliar settings, a criterion certainly fulfilled by using the truck as a canvas. After each drawing is complete, it goes out on the road, visible to anyone who sees the vehicle on its delivery route. The art is ephemeral and not designed to last, though some have stayed as long as six months.

So if you’re in the UK and you see what looks like a pair of hawks staring at you from the back of a truck, appreciate them while you can: the notoriously wet British climate will ensure that they won’t be around for long.

We should also mention that Long isn’t the only artist to explore clean-ffiti, but he may be one of the first and arguably the most talented in the field.

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