Encounters with Scratch My Nose
The world of street art and grafitti writing is constantly evolving and reinventing itself. The public understanding has also evolved from where graffiti was seen as having a little or no artistic merit. For good or bad, this evolution and legitimisation of graffiti has come to a level of commercialisation where graffiti artists endorse much of fashions streetware with it now incorporated into advertising campaigns – graffiti for hire - by companies such as IBM and Sony. This form of grafitti has almost become a standard dictionary definition of anti-establishment - Graffiti Art has become the 21st Century Impressionism.
During the 1970’s the streets were filled with poetry and filth, with amatuer writers branding their own philosphy and humour. During this period, graffiti was very significant in the urban landscape but it was often an unsophisticated medium of communication. As Banksy puts it “ A regular 400ml can of paint could make you incredibly famous / unpopular in a small town virtually overnight”. In Australia this sometimes took on a political bent such as the sprayed slogan ‘Export Fraser, Not Uranium’ or a word play such as ‘Scott Bon Lives’ that was found sprayed on a wall in inner city Sydney. Probably most remembered from this era would be the work of BUGA UP, a group of like-minded individuals who modified cigarette advertising billboards using humour as an their form of protest.
Scratch My Nose (SMN) drew inspiration and has more in common with this approach than with the modern hip-hop inspired and illustrative styles of graffiti that are governed by stylistic concerns. SMN is interested in story-telling which in many ways can be likened to the styles used by London anarchic anti-artists such as King Mob who borrowed heavily from the Situationists. King Mob’s visual manifesto flourished briefly during the early seventies and was in opposition to both the ‘Establishment’ and commercialised counter-culture of the Beatles and Carnaby Street. Their influence made itself felt long after its active demise, particularly in the punk movement. Malcolm McLaren claims he was at many King Mob events and the cut-up, home-made graphic designs fed into the punk look which Jamie Reid mirrored for the Sex Pistols.
Australian street art is a relatively recent phenomenon. Despite the vast and long history of Australian Graffiti made famous by Arthur Stace’s ‘Eternity’ and political satirists of the 1970’s, in the 1990’s street graffiti was at its lowest ebb. At that time it predominately mimicked hip-hop styles and had become a dying art. With no manifesto or rule book to be guided by, in the early 1990’s SMN filled this void with 1000’s of short obtuse stories on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne using a black texta and the same handwriting. Each of these short vignettes was signed-off with the words Scratch My Nose. These vignettes used cut-up text and were deceivingly nonsensical, but cut through to the heart of the matter and revealed hidden meanings. Mostly it showed a complete enjoyment of language and was happy to reveal itself in many ways - spelling mistakes and all.
Despite at times some obvious calls to come out from being anonymous including from galleries and clothing manufacturers, SMN were unlike many artists who saw it as a stepping stone to becoming a career artist. Instead they focussed on the greater value and context of street art. Isn’t a Graffitist, novice or expert, doomed to create in secret and to remain ever anonymous? Despite this world of anonymity, SMN received feedback in unusual ways including from other graffiti writers copying SMN including using the tag, another graffiti writer wanting to contact SMN to start up a graffiti co-op after he had been arrested and classified ads in street press magazines seeking to meet SMN.
SMN’s dark and irreverent humour intrigued many including Sydney artist Cherine Fahd who discusses her encounters with SMN and how she met or she thinks she met SMN:
I lived in and around Darlinghurst and Kings Cross in Sydney for at least 12 years. During those years I walked everywhere. Why would you bother driving when there was nowhere to park your car and if you did you could guarantee that it would be stolen at least once.
When walking to work, to the shops, to university, or wherever I felt mostly free to daydream, but on occasion my daydreams were interrupted by scribblings, words, weird little stories that made no sense. I would come across these scribblings everywhere - on walls, post boxes, street posters, bricks, and footpaths. The handwriting was odd too. Something very idiosyncratic about it was that it was not “graffiti like”. It was all uppercase letters and with a slight slant but never in the one direction, and then another sentence that seemed always present, as if signing off was “Scratch My Nose”. What does it all mean? I wondered.
I guess I simply got used to seeing them. I would just automatically read the statement whenever I passed one. These strange perplexing sentences started to seem “normal”. After a long period of time, they began to make sense. I wondered if I was beginning to enjoy them because at first they really got on my nerves because I seemed incapable of ignoring them.
Then everything change when I began working at an art shop with a bunch of artists, one was a tall fellow who liked to wear 70’s clothing and was unconventional even amongst the unconventional. Quickly I noticed he had developed a strange obsession with the Chilean manager. One night shift when standing behind the counter next to him I saw he was colouring beards onto everything. He explained that he was turning everything into an effigy of the Chilean (who had a beard & moustache). I also took note of his hand writing. It seemed rather familiar and rather odd in its familiarity. Then I spotted a series of notes with strange sentences. These notes were plentiful and stuffed into a folder that was supposed to be designated for more official art shop work. Then I saw it! The vindicating sentence ‘Scratch My Nose’. I was standing next to, working alongside ‘Scratch My Nose’.
“Its you” I exclaimed.
“What does it all mean?” I asked him.
“What does it all mean” he replied.
Cherine Fahd is a photo-media artist who has exhibited both nationally and internationally for the last 10 years. She is the recipient of numerous New Work grants from the Australia Council for the Arts and her work is represented by Gitte Weise Galerie, Berlin.
Photos - Peter Hadjimichael