The gasmask in street art
September 13, 2007 7:41 AM   Subscribe

What's with the persistent gas-mask motif one finds in so much contemporary graffiti & "street art"?

I first noticed it a number of years back in Banksy's work, but now it seems to be pretty much ubiquitous. Is there some association or cultural resonance (beyond the obvious Great War and Pink Floyd references) to this iconography that I'm missing?
posted by Chrischris to Media & Arts (15 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Police tend to wear gas masks during protests or street riots. I always think of it as a quick symbol of govt. oppression of free speech and other citizen rights.

I think it also has connotations (for me, anyway) of how we're poisoning our atmosphere, figuratively and literally.
posted by occhiblu at 7:46 AM on September 13, 2007

if you are spray painting with any regularity you need to wear a respirator. often i see self portrait type pieces where the subject has a mask on, as they would when they create their art. in these situations it doubly serves to conceal the artists identity.
posted by phil at 7:51 AM on September 13, 2007

Street art isn't something I know too much about, but I believe Banksy made the gas-mask a popular motif.
posted by munchingzombie at 7:52 AM on September 13, 2007

A gas mask is iconic i.e. visual shorthand for an idea. So it works great for message across.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:02 AM on September 13, 2007

for the most part banksy's work is a rip off of blek le rat. i am failing to find an example now, but i am fairly certain i have seen stencils he did with gas masks which date back to the mid 80s.
posted by phil at 8:08 AM on September 13, 2007

I think it's a visual shorthand for both government oppression (masks worn by police) / M-I complex stuff, and general dehumanization. It's an effective image because it has multiple meanings and invokes a range of feelings rather than simply a specific one.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:20 AM on September 13, 2007

phil has it. It is becoming almost a standard for urban artists.
I still find self-portraits (painted or stencils) where the artist wears a scarf (to both ends: first, protection, second, anonymizer) but more appear now with respirators, the high tech version of the scarf.
posted by bru at 8:27 AM on September 13, 2007

More often than not - it means the "artist" can't draw faces.
posted by LakesideOrion at 8:32 AM on September 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think its just dehumanizing. There are no human features left on the face when wearing one and they have developed an "alien" connotation.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:39 AM on September 13, 2007

Gasmasks have been an icon in the gothic/industrial scene for a long time. They show up twice in Tanith Lee's gothic thriller Personal Darkness; the little goth girl turns up her nose at the bottle blonde wearing silver gas mask earrings, because they'd become so ubiquitous.

Later, she approves of someone who used a gas mask as a flowerpot.

The reasons why are pretty obvious, I think: they're made of black rubber, which is traditional dominatrix gear; they represent state oppression due to their association with riot cops; they defend against chemical warfare, which is a scary thing to think about; and they make your face look creepy when you wear them.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:00 AM on September 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

I remember them from a few places

1. As faces/heads Pink Floyd's The Wall (I think?) so I associate them with wartime air raids in Europe
2. As things that protestors wore at the WTO protests (and doubtless countless other places) to make it clear that they were serious and ready to tactically engage with police/law enforcement
posted by jessamyn at 9:16 AM on September 13, 2007

I think it has to do with punk rock. I grew up with flyers and CD covers with gas masks all over them. It's short hand for government oppression/war/losing your identity/I hate my parents/whatever.
posted by bradbane at 11:58 AM on September 13, 2007

It's all of this. Gas masks/dust masks/respirators have been used with regularity in street art for many, many years. It is oppression, anonymity, and health-concerns, all in one.

And, fyi, it's been around alot longer than banksy. He just kind of made it more pop-culture.
posted by Espoo2 at 12:28 PM on September 13, 2007

It's a protest thing.
posted by sneakin at 12:46 PM on September 13, 2007

As I understand it, gas masks have a special resonance with Britons of certain ages. First there was the Great War, the advent of modern chemical weapons and the subsequent invention of the gas mask as protection against sudden and horrific death. Second there's the German air raids on English cities, the Blitz. You can find no end of pictures of school children outfitted with gas masks standing patiently in rows from this time. This motif shaped the iconography of England (and other countries no doubt) and it's referred to directly in The Wall if I remember correctly. Banksy is also British, though I don't think he's old enough to have personally witnessed the Blitz, but it probably affected his family directly in some form or another.

This iconography, tied as it is to times when Britain was at war with Germany, carries a certain flavor of totalitarianism, which ties in with ikkyu2's point about fetish wear, and bradbane's point about punk iconography.
posted by lekvar at 5:33 PM on September 13, 2007

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