Moviment Graffitti: Since 1994, fighting the power

Since 1994 Moviment Graffitti has been a fixture on the fringe of Maltese politics. Himself a founder of the group in the mid 1990s, James Debono takes a trip down memory lane

Putting their money where their mouth is: Graffitti and KEA get stuck in as they unfurl a massive banner right in the middle of the Planning Authority board meeting on yet another relocation of a fuel service station outside development zones
Putting their money where their mouth is: Graffitti and KEA get stuck in as they unfurl a massive banner right in the middle of the Planning Authority board meeting on yet another relocation of a fuel service station outside development zones

Graffitti struck again, only last week in the boardroom of the Planning Authority, unfurling a banner right before the eyes of the unwitting decision-makers, saying ‘ABZ mill-ODZ?’. I witnessed the spontaneous action of commitment. It captured the public’s attention, livestreamed by the press. Even this very newspaper sang the praises of this band of demonstrators in its leader last week.

Moviment Graffitti has now been around for nearly 25 years. And of the original crop of activists only a couple remain, with this left-wing movement having seen an enormous turnover of activists over the years.

It has seen various generational changes as activists left and followed new pastures. Yet, defying the odds facing similar organisations which tend to dissipate with time, Graffitti continues to outlive its members and now thrives among a new crop of millennials.

Its central message, playfully left wing, anti-racist, socially liberal and largely focused on land use issues, has remained constant. Moreover its militancy and affinity to counter-cultural tastes in music and lifestyle gives activists a strong sense of identity… something which triggers in myself the foggy nostalgia of ideological discussions on the merits of Louis Althusser while listening to the righteous sound of Rage Against the Machine, a major influence on the group’s founders.

Grab him by the head! One-time Graffitti activist Mark Vella stands his ground during a protest on 1 June 1995, over the creation of the Junior College that supplanted the Sixth Form Lyceum
Grab him by the head! One-time Graffitti activist Mark Vella stands his ground during a protest on 1 June 1995, over the creation of the Junior College that supplanted the Sixth Form Lyceum

This was the early 1990s, well before the age of Facebook and social media, when the movement communicated its messages through amateurish pamphlets sold on the University campus. Some of the idiosyncrasies of Graffitti’s early days are captured in Guze Stagno’s novel Inbid ta’ Kuljum and in Karl Schembri’s Il-Manifest tal-Killer. And while the movement’s radical image may have turned off boorish and sober types, it was one of those few spaces on the island where diversity in matters like sexual orientation and lifestyle were part of the norm.

Its ideology has shifted from defiant Marxism and an affinity with Zminijietna, which included former militants of the Maltese Communist Party, to something more akin to  anarchism, green politics and new left politics.

For years it even used the office of the defunct Communist Party in Strait Street, Valletta. In 2000, the internal debate and vote to support EU membership was taken under the watchful gaze of portraits of Korea dictators Kim il Sung and Kim Jong Il, remnants of the old Communist Party, always the butt of jokes of the young activists.

In local politics, Graffitti had shifted from open support for Labour before the 1996 election to an on-and-off romance with AD, sometimes acting as a recruitment pool for the Greens.

But the movement’s leftish identity did not prevent active cooperation with the Studenti Demokristjani Maltin (SDM) during the stipend protests in 1996.

While it remained ideologically exotic and sometimes sectarian, Graffitti also played an important role as a coalition builder especially on land use issues. While many praise the movement for its non-partisan consistency after having protested against all kinds of governments, it was its remarkable ability to get its hands dirty in alliance building which may be its long-lasting legacy.

To do this it had to resist the constant temptation to see itself as a vanguard. Over the years Graffitti’s tendency to distinguish itself from the crowd – sometimes openly antagonising potential allies – may have been its greatest liability.

One major success was the Front Kontra l-Golf Kors, a broad alliance of organisation ranging from farmers’ and church organisations to hunters and vegetarians, which successfully stopped developer Anglu Xuereb’s Verdala Golf course in 2004.

This had been preceded by the Front Kontra l-Hilton, which saw Graffitti activists team up with Friends of the Earth and YMCA activist Jean Paul Mifsud, himself a fixture in student activism during the early 1990s before dedicating himself to the voluntary sector and lately to the production of olive oil in Sicily.

This alliance tradition was kept alive with variable success, in subsequent fronts and alliances formed in the next two decades. And such alliances were always pregnant with tension especially on the thorny issue of political alliances and whether to reach out to political parties.

Graffitti and KEA prised open Manoel Island gates to protest the closure of the foreshore to the public
Graffitti and KEA prised open Manoel Island gates to protest the closure of the foreshore to the public

WHERE WERE THEY?

Past Campaigns spearheaded by Graffitti /fronts in which it was involved

  • Against Hilton Development with Front Kontra l-Hilton (1994-1997)
  • Anti MacDonald’s Day (1995-2000)
  • Verdala Golf course with Front Kontra l-Golf Kors (2000-2004)
  • Zonqor AUM development with Front Harsien ODZ (2015)
  • Manoel Island with Kamp Emergenza Ambjent (2016-2018)
  • Paceville Masterplan with Kamp Emergenza Ambjent (2016-2017)

Zonqoe AUM development protest
Zonqoe AUM development protest

Political stands by Graffitti

  • 1994 Opposed state Vatican agreement on marriage
  • 1995 Called for decriminalisation of abortion
  • 1996 Endorsed Sant’s Labour in general election
  • 2000 Supported EU membership bid following internal vote
  • 2016 Called for resignation of Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri while calling both parties different versions of the “same shit”

A younger Michael Briguglio, sporting a RATM t-shirt
A younger Michael Briguglio, sporting a RATM t-shirt

Turnover of activists

Some members, including myself, left the organisation at the turn of the millennium to join the Green Party.

Co-Founder Michael Briguglio, who has remained a fixture in civil society activism, went on to become Alternattiva Demokratika chairperson and a local councillor for the Greens in Sliema, before joining the Nationalist Party after the last general election. Today he lectures sociology at the University of Malta.

Others, like the lawyer Alex Sciberras, also passed into AD’s youth section before leaving to contest for Labour and becoming Msida mayor for one term.

Novelists Mark Vella and Guze Stagno were active for some time. It-Torca’s former editor Aleks Farrugia also passed through its militant louver doors. Journalist Jurgen Balzan was active too before joining Alternattiva Demokratika and later starting his career in journalism. Sociologist Mary Grace Vella is probably the sole survivor of the original crop of activists harking back to the 1990s.

Some former members are now directly involved in policy-making. Between 2000 and 2003 former activist Silvan Agius served as Policy Director of ILGA Europe, and in the 2013 general election he stood as AD candidate before joining Helena Dalli’s Ministry where he presently serves as director of the Human Rights and Integration Directorate.

Some other members, like Commonwealth youth worker Chris Mizzi, became active in the voluntary sector. Mizzi was especially active during an ‘interregnum’ period of activism after the departure of Graffitti’s founders, and the new crop of activists today. Mark Camilleri, who had his taste of Graffitti before founding the mischievous student pamphlet Ir-Realtà and the Front Against Censorship, now heads the National Book Council. Activist David Pisani remains a key figure in the more orthodox left-wing organisation Zminijietna with whom Graffitti shares its office in Strait Street.

Andre Callus, the public face of Moviment Graffiti
Andre Callus, the public face of Moviment Graffiti

Some present-day activists like the recognisable Andre Callus, who has grown in to the movement’s public face, have been around since the early noughties. This crop of younger activists included LGBTI and pro-Palestine activist Alex Caruana. Monique Agius, who chaired the first Front Harsien ODZ stood as a candidate with the Democratic Party in the last general election and now militates in the Civil Society Network.

Front Harsien ODZ provided a rare and short-lived occasion for the older generation of activists to engage with younger ones, which inevitably resulted in creative, but ultimately paralysing tension.   

Perhaps one of the marvellous discoveries I made during my brief return to activism included old scrap books full of press cuttings from days gone by. Lately Graffitti was instrumental in setting up Kamp Emergenza Ambjent, which also includes Brikkuni frontman Mario Vella. KEA took a prominent role in a campaign to secure access to the coast in Manoel Island, again in an alliance with its Labour-led council. And last week it teamed up with the PN-led St Julian’s council and the PL-led Pembroke council to oppose the City Centre project on land granted by government to developer Silvio Debono.

Its role in Maltese society has certainly evolved, not just as the handful of protestors unfurling ‘middle-finger’ banners at a visiting US warship, but as the crucial actors of resistance on Malta’s crisis of land use.

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