The clean art craze: reverse graffiti is the transient artform responding to urban dirt
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The clean art craze: reverse graffiti is the transient artform responding to urban dirt

The clean art craze: reverse graffiti is the transient artform responding to urban dirt

Andrew Bell

If, at some point in the last 20 years, you wandered through the streets of Leeds or Brighton, or passed by Waterloo Station or Kings Cross, or meandered down the River Thames in London, or walked along overpasses in Sydney or strolled down sidewalks in Shanghai, you may have come across some curiously subtle artwork stenciled into the concrete. If you then walked by the same spot a month or two later, you may have noticed that it had disappeared without a trace. This is the transient, intriguing beauty of reverse graffiti, the process of using stencils, pressure washers, rags, and even toothbrushes to clean images and messages into sidewalks and walls that have accumulated years of a city’s dirty, coughed exhaustion.

Drawing attention to urban dirt with art. Image by Moose.

Reverse graffiti’s street origins

The artist whose work was teased out of the concrete in the places listed above is Paul “Moose” Curtis.  Moose is widely considered to be the godfather of reverse graffiti. He invented the form and started clean-tagging (or “dusting” as he also likes to call it) the sidewalks and walls of Leeds, England back in the late 90s to promote an album for the record label he was managing at the time. His work eventually drew the attention of Leeds City Council, which tried to bring legal action against him. The legal dispute actually gave his work more publicity and encouraged more people to get in on the form. “I felt like I created this really curious process that flipped the laws and made it really awkward for the legal system to deal with… it was just in a beautiful gray area,” he told me in a recent interview. “They [Leeds City Council] said all kinds of [negative] things about me to the press, which actually was piping me in a way that no PR people could do.” What resulted was a publicity that he had not expected, and… wash, wash, scrub, scrub… a new artform emerged.
In subsequent years, many artists have added their own style and flare to the reverse graffiti genre: Brazilian artist Alexandre Orion’s skulls scrubbed into an underpass in São Paulo; Oliver Bienkowski’s series of clovers stenciled into a highway wall, which became Germany’s longest stretch of clean tagging; Scott Wade’s dirty car art (which takes the “clean me” scrawled across filthy car windows to stunning levels of detail and beauty) – they all owe a bit of a tip-of-the-cap to Moose.
An action shot of Orion creating his skull artwork in ​​São Paulo.

Companies clean up with reverse graffiti advertising

Reverse graffiti advertising campaign by Ariel. Source:

Drawing attention to dirt is an unconventional way to advertise, but it enables companies to showcase cleaning products. Source:

Companies also caught on to the value of reverse graffiti in promoting their brands, and the terms “clean advertisement” and “reverse graffiti advertising” – a new genre of increasingly popular graffiti advertising – were born. Smirnoff, Puma, ING Bank, Mini Cooper, Nissan, and countless others have jumped at the opportunity to subtly promote their brands, with the stenciled or brushed photographic negatives of their logo or slogan peeking from a carefully cleaned sidewalk or the window of a dirty car.

Companies see reverse graffiti advertising as a way to get their name out there, cleanly. Image by Moose.

In fact, it’s the very much not-in-your-face nature of the medium that can make it so appealing for marketers. “When you’re in a city, advertising at eye-level is psychedelic almost – it’s so intense,” Moose told me. “The stuff that works really well isn’t really in your face, it’s a little bit more intriguing… you can draw people into something and make them be involved… and solving it, if you like, being a part of that riddle that you make.”

Read more on the advantages and disadvantages of OOH advertising. 

Experiential marketing in the urban space

It’s at this point that reverse graffiti and experiential marketing sort of coalesce, which can lead to unique and provocative collaborations between artists and brands. Experiential marketing, quite obviously, creates experiences between brands and consumers. Interactions called “activations” in marketing jargon can include product sampling, games, and different kinds of physical and sensory interactions, and some of the best street art advertising campaigns are those which give the consumer a memorable and thought-provoking experience with a product or company.
Reverse graffiti is very much experiential. It forces people to confront the dirtiness of their urban space and serves as an eye-opening commentary on carbon emissions and pollution in general. A collaboration between Moose and Keep Britain Tidy, for example, involved a nature scene clean-tagged into a wall near King’s Cross Station, where he then recorded how much litter was being dropped and incorporated it into the scene. “I created this really beautiful kind of natural environment, and then destroyed it day-by-day… turning something quite nice into something quite disturbing.” For Moose, the experience of transience and his art’s interaction with people on the street is the ultimate power of the form, where people walking to work or wherever every day can experience a piece evolving, and stop for at least a split-second to think a bit more critically about something.

Which also makes the medium very social media-friendly. In the aforementioned psychedelic landscape of advertising, something visually discreet, but with a powerful subcontext, can have a big impact. Moose recalled several instances where he saw people stopping to take selfies or foot-selfies with his work, as its idiosyncrasy and environmental statement dawned on them.

Reverse graffiti advertising and art is often captured and shared on social media. Image by Moose.

The green ad dilemma

Companies are realizing the value of incorporating tactics like reverse graffiti advertising into their marketing strategies. However, Moose warned in no uncertain terms of the pitfalls of working with big companies, citing several examples of collaborations where he felt constrained or deceived. A plant-based cleaning product he collaborated with, for example, turned out to be owned by a bigger company quite antithetical to anything considered “green”.
But more than that, Moose highlighted a dilemma in the collaborations between reverse graffiti artists and companies, saying that he always “felt quite uncomfortable about the fact that it was the artform lending itself to show people how dirty the world is… and yet if it’s involved in a corporate way where it’s encouraging consumerism, it’s totally paradoxical.”
The consumerism inherent in advertising, particularly in our present moment where algorithms are becoming increasingly predictive of our tastes and preferences is something to be wary of, to say the least. But if both the artist and the brand are on the same page – genuinely working towards a sustainable future – fruitful collaborations are there for the making.

See how a bunch of street artists and Penny collaborated to transform a supermarket in Berlin.
For now at least, Moose is content spending his time on his farm in Spain, growing agave and getting in touch with the natural world he’s been committed to cleaning for decades.
Forms and motifs inspired by the natural world suggest the possibility of a greener future. Photo by Moose.

Another beautiful example of reverse graffiti: 

Another remarkable example of creativity is the Solina dam eco-mural. The mural features a variety of wildlife and plant life found in the Bieszczady Mountains in Poland. 

An ecomural in Solina dam where a bunch of artists, engineers, and designers used a water pump within other tools to create these wonderful figures. The project was sponsored by the Polish Energy Group.

Work in progress in the Solina dam.

Aerial view on the artwork of reverse graffiti in the Solina dam. Source:

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