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Graffiti artists paint the town green

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Street artist Edina Tokodi puts up two polar bear figures in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She forms the shapes at home from small sheets of moss before hitting the streets. (Photo courtesy of Edina Tokodi)

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Street artist Edina Tokodi "tags" a construction site in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, with animal moss figures. She works with familiar animal shapes to encourage passers-by to stop and touch them. (Photo courtesy of Edina Tokodi)

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Street artist Edina Tokodi "tags" a construction site in Coney Island, Brooklyn, with a deer head made of moss. She chooses environments that she feels need green reminders. (Photo courtesy of Edina Tokodi)

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Jesse Graves, a student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, puts up his mud stencils around campus. Here, he chooses a bike path as his canvas to encourage environmentally friendly forms of transportation. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Graves)

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Jesse Graves, an art education student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, puts up his mud stencils around campus. His "Oil Water Bottle" stencil reminds people of the large quantities of oil used to make water bottles. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Graves)

From a distance, it seems like a little bunny in silhouette, its ears perked in unison, or a turkey with a pronounced back hump, or a deer with thin, graceful legs. A closer look at the designs on a construction fence in Brooklyn, however, shows that these creatures are furry. And green.

It’s moss, the latest craze in green graffiti, an effort to make street art out of natural or living materials. The trend has popped up in cities across the U.S. and Canada, and the results are visually startling, made out of moss or mud and thrown up on abandoned buildings, at construction sites and in parking lots.

For veteran graffiti artist Spar One, this latest trend hearkens back to the political activism of street art of the 1960s, when artists scrawled antiwar and environmental messages on the streets with chalk because, he says, “it was nontoxic and it could be washed away.”

Much of graffiti has gone the other way in recent years, as research labs develop high-tech materials, from magnetic paint embedded with LED lights to “throwies,” tiny bright lights affixed to magnets that stick to metal surfaces.

Green graffiti, however, embraces simple, biodegradable materials and do-it-yourself techniques. “There’s an opportunity here to really look at how we’re hungry for proof that somehow we’re still a part of nature and that there’s nature all around us. It’s something we forget as we go from one box to another,” says Sam Bower, executive director of greenmuseum.org, an online museum founded in 2001 to promote and showcase environmental art.

“I think the moss graffiti reminds people of nature in an urban context where they least expect it, and the discussion that emerges from that is powerful and important.”

Edina Tokodi, 29, the artist behind the moss animals in Brooklyn, simply wants to remind passers-by of the importance of greenery. “I think everyone should have a garden,” she says, just as she had while growing up in central Hungary. Before coming to the U.S. in 2005, the graphic designer and printmaker received a grant to create a moss wall installation in the middle of Budapest, and her side career took off.

To make her graffiti, she buys small sheets of moss at a gardening store and pieces them together at home before hitting the street with her camera-carrying boyfriend, who documents the “crime.”

And she has gotten some attention, particularly online, where her work has garnered hundreds of blog postings.

The fad is also catching on in Canada. Andrea Bellamy, 31, is an active member of the Vancouver Guerrilla Gardeners, a group organized through Meetup.com. The group, which currently has 162 members, has disseminated seed balls, planted guerrilla orchards on the sly, and since last year has experimented with moss graffiti.

Unlike Tokodi, who doesn’t focus on the longevity of her projects, Bellamy wants her graffiti to live on, literally. So she collects pieces of moss from stones and trees close to her home, never taking too much from one location. Then she follows a recipe she found online, a mixture of buttermilk, sugar and moss. She is still working on perfecting the consistency to help her work live longer.

Some green activists question how environmentally friendly this kind of graffiti really is, though. To make her moss stick, Tokodi uses tape, glue or staples. Bower, for one, worries this technique goes against the mission of green art.

Jesse Graves, a 19-year-old art education student at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, practices a kind of green graffiti that circumvents the challenges of moss graffiti: He uses mud. “Mud is actually a fairly permanent medium,” he explains. “When it dries it really sticks, it doesn’t flake off.”

In a town where graffiti tags are immediately painted over, Graves’ images of bikes and water bottles have remained virtually untouched. And while the university is strict about property defacement, campus police chief Pamela Hodermann says that using temporary materials like chalk and mud is not considered a violation.

Graves, who first experimented with the process during a guerrilla printmaking class last fall, has since put up 30 mud stencils, as he calls them, on walls and bike paths around campus. He carries the mud mixture “in an old glass peanut butter jar with a screw cap” and using a Mylar stencil, can put up an image up in five minutes flat. So far he hasn’t been stopped.

Graves and Tokodi will both work next on sponsored projects: Tokodi doing moss installations for a green bus campaign in Pennsylvania, and Graves stenciling the school’s Earth Day logo for the student union.

That is just the kind of work they hope to get more of. But the longevity of their work could make it hard to get commissioned assignments in some places: So far, Tokodi’s art lasts a few days; Graves’ lasts a couple of months.

But at venues like Hushpuppy Gallery, a small up-and-coming art space located next to Oakland Historic Cemetery in the Grant Park area of Atlanta, moss graffiti is the next big thing. Jason Drakeford, a 25-year-old photographer and designer who runs the gallery with his girlfriend, is preparing to mail out moss kits to artists around the country and ask them to document their work for an exhibit in May. He also plans to start a Flickr group where people can upload photographs of their own moss graffiti.

Law enforcement officials trying to rid their towns of graffiti are also considering a green solution. Teenagers in a juvenile detention facility in Corpus Christi, Texas, where graffiti is a citywide problem, are learning that green graffiti may be a legal, and less costly, way to practice their art. Inspired by the work of a local nonprofit arts organization, Susan Balbin, an art instructor at the Nueces County Juvenile Justice Boot Camp, is working with county officials to teach the teens how to paint with moss, stencil with mud and use a wet rag to wipe a tag onto a dirty wall.

Her students, she says, are excited. “We try not to say graffiti—-we’re calling it street and urban art,” she says. “But they know what it is.”

E-mail: jyk2117@columbia.edu