Surface Tensions: Urban Graffiti and the Image of the Philippine City

Katrina Macapagal

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What happens when the state tries to co-opt the radical potential of street art?

The urban space of Metropolitan Manila is occupied by images that compete for our attention. As we travel through the city’s main thoroughfares, it is almost impossible to avoid the visual assault of images projected on just about any available surface: screens, billboards, walls, even public transportation. The images that dominate the Philippine urban space are those sanctioned by the state: official government announcements, commercial advertisements, commissioned murals. But it is also apparent that these dominant images are regularly interrupted by those that seem out of place: words and pictures that comprise the wide-ranging scope of urban graffiti, a visual form that has arguably gained more ground as “legitimate” art in recent years.

In the context of urban space, graffiti insists on being out of place. Graffiti, after all, remains a form of vandalism. To most, graffiti is generally perceived as the defacement of private surfaces – a definition that has long been contested by graffiti writers and enthusiasts who continue to make a case for graffiti as art. In a fairly recent study, Mark Halsey and Alison Young phrased the basic tension surrounding graffiti production: “Graffiti exists as a paradoxical phenomenon – as both aesthetic practice and criminal activity.”1 Any attempt to identify the kinds of graffiti on city-surfaces thus depends largely on which definition one is inclined to accept. While there are various styles that comprise what could be regarded as “contemporary” graffiti, the more familiar of these are often traced back to the hip-hop ghetto subculture in “major” Western cities, particularly New York and Philadelphia in the 1970s. Earlier studies of the nature of graffiti point to its social and political significance as a subcultural practice, a means by which marginalized individuals and groups assert identity and territoriality.2

Graffiti and the city

As with other cultural practices—“emergent” ones, especially—graffiti has had to contend with issues of legitimacy, aesthetics, and authenticity since it became more visible in the contemporary world. More recently, the commercial success of artists like Banksy, whose works can mostly be seen in European and American cities, has renewed interest in this supposedly alternative brand of “street” art. Graffiti has since been exhibited in high-end galleries, with the more popular graffiti artists fetching millions at auctions, at the same time that these works are reproduced on banal merchandise like shirts and mugs.

The resurgence of interest in graffiti production found in “major” cities is visible as well in the Philippine urban space, which is not to say that the practice is that of simple mimicry. Any local resident would be familiar with some of the more ubiquitous and somewhat random graffiti found in the Manila urban space: scribbles of profanity and expressions of love on lamp-posts and pillars, spray-painted, (often incomprehensible) gang names on private gates, scrawled signs of “Bawal umihi/tumae” along alley-surfaces, self-contradictory “Post No Bill” stencils on concrete walls. These, alongside overtly political calls related to the issues of the day (Oust! Resign! Junk!), as well as the consistently radical markings of “Viva CPP-NPA-NPF!” sometimes tagged with the name of the organizations behind the slogans. Quite recently, medium to large-scale graffiti stencils and murals have surfaced in various areas of the metro, with incredibly varied images, for instance, animal illustrations ranging from dolphins to maggots.

While some graffiti enthusiasts are on the lookout for local versions of Banksy­—or comparisons between Western and Philippine graffiti production—it might be useful as well to consider the relations between graffiti production and spatial production. The growing visibility of urban graffiti has drawn attention not just to the changing nature of the works themselves, but also to the nature of the city as graffiti’s spatial canvas. The resurgence of urban graffiti’s visibility in recent years reinforces the city’s visual nature, something that John Berger drew attention to early on. In an essay about paintings of New York, he noted: “A modern city, however, is not only a place, it is also in itself, long before it is painted, a series of images, a circuit of messages. A city teaches and conditions by its appearances, its facades and its plans.”3 Transposed into the local context, we could ask: How does urban graffiti figure into the visual culture of the city, or to be more precise, the visual representation of the Philippine city?

Tactics and Strategies

It was not too long ago that the Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) used its brand of street art to counter graffiti as part of its urban beautification efforts. Crude geometric patterns were used to cover non-official graffiti, most visible along the walls of the main stretch of Epifanio de los Santos Avenue (EDSA). It was a project met with criticism, not so much for its intentions but more for its aesthetics. More recently, in 2011, Pacific Paint (Boysen Philippines) tied-up with the MMDA and launched a more ambitious “urban renewal” street art project called “Project: EDSA,” comprised of large-scale murals installed by local and international visual artists using Boysen’s environmentally-friendly paint.4

The Boysen project is a far cry from rudimentary circles and squares, to be sure. The vastness of the murals as well as the choice of sites, partly based on “the highest commuter and pedestrian density”along the highway, ostensibly contributes to greater visibility. Consider, for instance, the huge space covered by the mural on the San Lorenzo village wall that serves as the backdrop for bus stops along Magallanes, a work comprised of what seems to be impressions of underwater images, oddly tagged with “OK” buttons here and there and highlighted with the word “Ganap.” What this mural means is anyone’s guess, which is partly the point of public art anyway, since the images are accessible to anyone who happens to have the time to think about the meaning of water creatures painted on the walls of EDSA. If one moves further north along the same side of EDSA, one would also see a stretch of trees, with multi-colored leaves arranged in the form of lungs, what seems to be a more self-explanatory attempt at showcasing urban renewal in both its visual and environmental aspects.

Another state project currently under way is the “Urban Artscapes” competition, which will be overseen by the MMDA and no less than the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Interestingly, the meaning/s of winning artworks will be regulated, as the project specifically aims “to utilize public spaces and to mobilize street artists to promote National Cultural Identity by exposing the public to traditional Filipino designs and patterns.”According to the NCCA guidelines, the commissioned works which will be placed in highly visible areas in Metro Manila should also be “pleasant to view thus creating a more relaxing view to the general public.”7

The MMDA’s beautification efforts on the local front call attention once again to the nature of contemporary graffiti as being somewhere in between art and vandalism. To most urban inhabitants who have been conditioned to expect a “modern” city to be free from unauthorized images on walls, signboards, pillars, and lamp-posts, works of graffiti are not part of the city’s plans. More importantly, in the eyes of the state, graffiti is a crime that literally tarnishes the image of the city, to the extent that graffiti warrants regulation via official urban policies.8 The interesting turn in contemporary graffiti production, it seems, is the state’s appropriation of some of the tactics used in graffiti production into its own strategies of urban renewal.

Considering its origins, graffiti can be approached as “the art of the weak,” one example of the “tactics” we employ in everyday practices, following Michel De Certeau’s conceptualization. For De Certeau, “a tactic is determined by the absence of power just as a strategy is organized by the postulation of power.”9 Without rehearsing a detailed history and definition of graffiti, what is worth reasserting is how graffiti production can be understood as a tactic that initially emerged to counter strategies used to control the ownership of city-space. This has always been the transgressive potential of the practice of graffiti, but the extent of its potential transgression depends on issues of aesthetics, circulation, and reception.10

Informed by this differentiation between tactics and strategies, it becomes possible to make a case for two important categories of contemporary graffiti – commissioned graffiti (by the state, private patrons, galleries, etc.) and non-commissioned graffiti (which is not really as simple as identifying existing graffiti “crews,” as the discussion that follows will reveal). Such a categorization allows us to consider the tensions that arise when tactics evolve to perform the function of strategies, such as in the case of the MMDA’s appropriation and regulation of graffiti. Before, the MMDA’s geometric patterns served to literally paint over non-commissioned graffiti; in these recent urban renewal efforts, there is no need to hide graffiti when the images themselves have become the means of urban beautification.


The extent to which graffiti incorporates itself into the image of the modern city depends largely on visibility, which in turn depends on a number of considerations, such as the breadth and elevation of the surface covered. For instance, the Boysen project boasts of the “scale” of its murals in physical terms. Non-commissioned graffiti are relatively smaller in scale, and those that are able to cover larger surfaces are obviously not visible along EDSA. Stylized names or “tags,” the most common style of graffiti, are often seen on surfaces at street level, although it’s not impossible to spot tags written on bridges and high-rise walls. Another element to consider in relation to visibility is the quality of materials used, which could range from simple markers and spray paint to the use of stencils, wheat paste, and stickers – materials that can be used quickly. It shouldn’t be a stretch to say that for commissioned graffiti installations, it is relatively easier to achieve visibility: space becomes more accessible as artists are able to skirt issues of mobility and security, giving them not just more space but more time to install bigger and more complex works, along with a steady supply of materials from no less than a major paint company.

The question of who produces graffiti thus combines with the question of where and what, especially as the categories of commissioned vs. non-commissioned graffiti can be seen to overlap in certain cases. Art critic Antares Bartolome, who wrote a study on university-based graffiti11 and has since observed trends in the local graffiti scene, explains that the concept of anonymity for graffiti writers is linked not only to the issue of security, but also to the notion of graffiti as public art. The graffiti artist’s anonymity could be read as divesting the work of the artist’s own interests.xii But one might say that the graffiti artist’s exposure is becoming less of a problem as graffiti becomes a more “acceptable” form of art, at least those whose works are not as aggressive as outright political calls for rebellion. There’s a difference, after all, between tagging an image with the name of a graffiti crew versus tagging a statement with the name of a political mass organization.12

In contrast to revolutionary slogans, however, there seems to be a degree of state tolerance for graffiti that depicts a sense of nationalism – what seems to be an emerging theme in contemporary local graffiti. There’s the image of the amulet/anting-anting, for instance, popularized by Boy Agimat from PSP, and the more recent works of the Katipunan Supreme Team crew and Gerilya that reference images of national heroes like Andres Bonifacio. Interestingly, the visibility of these particular works that signify nationalism has turned them into marketable commodities. Agimat’s signature image of an eye enclosed in a triangle can now be considered a brand of sorts, as this image can now be purchased through a range of Boy Agimat merchandise. The same can be said about the Gerilya crew, a University of the Philippines-based group that participates in the production of protest murals with mass organizations, but oddly enough, also launches exhibitions in galleries and accepts commissioned works, like a mural project sponsored by no less than Imee Marcos.

This emerging theme of nationalism recalls another MMDA project called “Pillars of Progress” which was premised on the endorsement of an arguably “modern” sense of national identity/identification, a project launched in time for Labor Day 2013 in partnership with artist A.G. Saño.13 The project features over twenty stenciled portraits of “typical” Filipino workers installed on the pillars of the EDSA-Buendia flyover. Below the beaming iconographic faces are captions that serve to identify various professions of the ordinary Filipino (e.g. nurse, factory worker, teacher). The caption I distinctly remember is “OFW Ako,” which of course calls to mind the policy of labor migration actively endorsed by the state. Strategies and tactics intersect: as the state strategically appropriates graffiti tactics to sell its projected image of the “modern” city, graffiti practice is incorporated into strategies of (national) commodification, with themes that arguably run parallel with the state’s concept of nationalism – although these images cannot simply be dismissed as having been absolutely appropriated by the state.



It is difficult to map where non-commissioned graffiti is usually seen in any urban space, perhaps because the nature of the practice itself implies some degree of spontaneity, which is not to say that these tactics are not at all planned. With its available surfaces, the urban space lends itself to the spatial practice of graffiti, but it’s clear that different kinds of cities offer different kinds of surfaces. For instance, at the height of the graffiti practice in New York, it was not uncommon to see graffiti-covered subway trains, moving surfaces that are able to achieve greater exposure as they cover long stretches of the city space.14 In Metro Manila, it is common to see MRT and LRT units decked in commercial advertisements, train lines above street level that run almost parallel to the all-too-familiar billboard advertisements installed on mall exteriors.

In the local urban space, apart from the usual public spaces, it’s interesting to note that some works of non-commissioned graffiti are installed on surfaces of ruins: abandoned or unfinished buildings around Metro Manila. The reasons behind choosing these abandoned surfaces likely include practical considerations such as easier access and lesser security risks, relative to the more guarded visible areas around the metro. To be able to install large non-commissioned graffiti along EDSA, for example, is quite a feat given the difficulty of actually getting there and the increased security risk. In one interview, graffiti artists associated with Pilipinas Street Plan (PSP) explained that they contact property owners beforehand, with a small percent actually granting the request.15 They added: ‘But we still “street”, we still target illegal spots. But we don’t hit houses or anything like that. Those are off-limits. We usually go for vacant lots. Ugly spots. Places we can paint without…basically we still respect property.’ 16

While this preference for using unused surfaces as graffiti canvas is definitely not particular to the local graffiti scene, it would be interesting to look at how even these seemingly “open” spaces can become sites that might accommodate initially conflicting interests. An example would be the Intramuros graffiti wall that serves as the backdrop of a public skate park, which could be approached as a kind of compromise (or compromised?) surface given that it’s a “legal graffiti wall,” as a recent news report phrased it.17 Local authorities have actually opened up the wall for defacement, as it were. The wall allows graffiti artists to showcase their work, at the same time that the wall is now included in some of the cultural tourist walks offered within Intramuros. Images that have been mounted on this wall are varied and temporal, ranging from the usual bubble tags to vibrant cartoons and portraits, one image overlapping the other, as different graffiti artists and crews compete to occupy this space. For sure, this particular wall is not the only surface that’s covered in graffiti around Intramuros, and much more can be said if one were to walk around the immediate space of the walled city to see what other kinds of images have been mounted. Another point to consider is the context of the larger space of Intramuros itself, whose very emergence as a walled city during the Spanish colonial period reveals how space, indeed, is a site of conflict, its walls being signifiers of occupation and exclusion.

The question of where graffiti can be found in the contemporary urban space has expanded to include technological means, which points to how space is linked to the concept of modern time. Urban graffiti, non-commissioned ones especially, can disappear overnight. The transfer of images from street surfaces to other conceived spaces allows for the reproduction of these images.18 Photographs of graffiti can now be seen online, one way of preserving these images that will inevitably be painted over, be it by other artists or through official urban policies. In the local urban space that is often characterized as chaotic and congested, the emergence of new digital tactics allow graffiti artists to challenge spatial containment in a city that is deemed to be running out of surfaces. An interesting example is artist Dean Africa’s undergraduate thesis project called “Simulated Graffiti” which utilized the technology of the projector in the production of digital graffiti.19 Given the portable nature of the projector, Africa was able to project his images on surfaces that are not usually accessible. For instance, he projected his illustration of a street child begging for alms on the surface of a billboard hanging outside a mall. This project is just one example of how graffiti artists make use of new means of production to challenge spatial containment, in the same manner that the cultural practice made use of the newly invented spray paint at the time graffiti took off.20

Urban projections

Urban projects enacted by the state all tend towards the production of what Henri Lefebvre identifies as “abstract space” which insists on an imagined homogeneity, including the homogeneity of visual representation.21 Yet abstract space inherently allows the production of “differential spaces” that reveal tensions and contradictions in representation.22 Images of the Manila skyline, for instance, attempt to project representations of the capital that can be likened to the branding of advanced capitalist cities. But an expanded view of the skyline reveals the contradictions that abound in the city-space, with high-rise buildings standing next to teeming slum communities.

Graffiti production is one of the visual/spatial practices that could very well contribute to the creation of differential spaces. But as local graffiti production continues to grapple with the tensions of state appropriation and commodification, the practice falls short of its potential to create differential spaces that could expose the illusions of abstraction. “Graffiti has to be violative,” Bartolome argues, a claim that relates to the cultural practice in both spatial and visual terms. The issue, of course, is not a simple matter of artistic intentions, as even non-commissioned graffiti are in danger of state appropriation.23 There is something clearly out of joint, however, when graffiti insists on inclusion rather than exclusion.

One could say that this insistence on inclusion in local graffiti production is somewhat reflective of the contradictions that abound in the modernist imaginary of the image of the Philippine city. Urban beautification/renewal projects tend to follow the model of the “modern” city as the picture of progress that the city/capital supposedly offers: physical, financial, economic mobility. The nation insists on incorporating itself into the global order ruled by capital, but within the global visual landscape, the Philippines remains an “eyesore,” often represented by accounts of everyday disorder and non-development in the nation’s capital: heavy traffic, cracked roads, unfinished buildings, congested streets, slum communities. These are the everyday scenes that comprise the image of the Philippine city that the state attempts to hide/regulate, but these are also the images that make the nation more visible in the global imaginary, a stark contrast to the images of “progress” exhibited in “major” cities.24 The incorporation of graffiti into local urban beautification projects is a modified strategy of hiding urban “eyesores” by trying to make them part of the “beauty” that the Philippine city offers.

The tensions surrounding the practice of graffiti remain one of the signs that the urban space is a site of conflict among its inhabitants, and even more so in a context where navigating through the chaos of the city is an everyday struggle. As state strategies and graffiti tactics overlap, the familiar questions of legitimacy and authenticity have resurfaced—but these questions are not as troubling as the possibility that there may come a time when graffiti, fully integrated, would no longer need to defend itself.





  1. Mark Halsey and Allison Young, (2006) “Our desires are ungovernable: Writing graffiti in urban space.” Theoretical Criminology, 10(3), 275e306.

  2. For an interesting approach to the history of graffiti in New York, see Joe Austin, Taking the Train: How Graffiti Art Became an Urban Crisis in New York City (New York: Columbia University Press, 2001).

  3. John Berger, “Ralph Fasanella and the Experience of the City,” in About Looking (New York: Vintage Books, 1980/1991), 104.

  4. Boysen Knoxout (accessed May 20, 2013).

  5. Project: EDSA (accessed May 20, 2013).

  6. See report here ( A related news report can be read here ( (accessed May 20, 2013).

  7. According to the NCCA report, the Urban Artscapes project will not be limited to graffiti. The project will seek applications for the installation of monuments and other forms of public art.

  8. Mark Halsey and Allison Young, (2006) “Our desires are ungovernable: Writing graffiti in urban space.” Theoretical Criminology, 10(3), 275e306.

  9. Michel De Certeau, Arts de Faire, Volume 1: The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984/1988), 38.

  10. The question of who produces non-commissioned graffiti in the local scene demands further research, for instance, in terms of looking at social backgrounds of artists and crews. The nature of the works themselves point to some initial preconceptions that graffiti is often carried out by youth groups from underprivileged backgrounds, but then again, some graffiti crews are also university-based. For a related study that takes an ethnographic approach, see Nancy Macdonald, The graffiti subculture: youth, masculinity and identity in London and New York (London: Palgrave, 2001).

  11. See Antares Bartolome, Writing the walls: an analysis of the practice of graffiti in the University of the Philippines, Diliman, 2006-2008, Unpublished thesis (College of Fine Arts, University of the Philippines, Diliman, 2009).

  12. Banksy’s “anonymity” is a strange, contemporary case. His real identity remains unknown despite his fame, and I think this is fundamental to his success as a graffiti artist. His persona as Banksy points to the emergence of a new kind of anonymous celebrity.

  13. Carmela G. Lapena, “Street Art Tribute Brightens Edsa Flyover,” GMA news, May 14, 2013 (accessed October 21, 2013).

  14. See Tracy Fitzpatrick, Art and the Subway: New York Underground (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2009).

  15. Macoy Tang, “Surprised by Art: An Encounter with Street Art,” Philippine Online Chronicles, June 26, 2010 (accessed May 20, 2013).

  16. Ibid.

  17. Sofia Benares, “Legal graffiti wall transforms city and art,” Rappler, October 3, 2013, (accessed October 22, 2013) .

  18. I borrow the term “conceived space” from Henri Lefebvre, which very loosely refers to dominant spaces as created by urban planners and the like. In The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974/1984).

  19. See portions of Dean Africa’s thesis here (

  20. My thanks to artists Buen Abrigo and Dean Africa for valuable information and insights on the process of graffiti production.

  21. Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974/1984).xxiiIbid.xxiii These trends in graffiti production are obviously not limited to the local scene; one only has to cite the massive success of commercial graffiti artists based in “major” cities.xxiv It seems that in “major” cities, a case can be made for the gentrifying effects of graffiti in some areas. One recent example is related to Banksy’s new works in Queens, New York, as mentioned in this essay: Alexander Nazaryan, “Street Art’s New Class War,” Newsweek, October 13, 2013 (accessed October 22, 2013).