The anti-hero through history…
Ever since man first learned to tell stories, there has always been the presence of the hero; the character we all rooted for, who would overcome insurmountable challenges and win the day.
But with the dawn of hierarchy and class divide came a new phenomena: the folk hero, or anti-hero. This was the character who typically represented the common folk; the maverick who challenged the status quo, overthrowing the oppression of the bourgeoisie for the benefit of the underdog masses.
People have always had a fond fascination with those brave savants who throw caution to the wind and two fingers to the law, and their cheeky victories serve to empower all of us – especially when it comes to moral and legal ‘grey areas’, where the law of the land isn’t necessarily best serving the community.
An infamous anti-hero we can all understand is Robin Hood, who famously stole from the rich to give to the poor. Although technically a thief, and almost certainly despised by the elite he stole from, he was granted the accolade of hero to the masses. He committed the crime of theft, however this sin was elevated to an act of honour because of his altruistic intentions – the gift of their earnings back. Therefore, Robin Hood had the moral victory, even though his actions were technically criminal.
In the 20th century, many gangsters (both real and fictional) became iconic anti-heroes. Characters such as Bonnie & Clyde; Al Capone; Ronnie Biggs; The Krays; Tony Montana and the Goodfellas were idolised for their seeming ability to live beyond the law and beyond reproach.
Although their actions were far from altruistic, we admired their fearlessness and freedom from the rules we mere mortals must adhere to daily.
A return to altruistic folk-heroes…
The 21st century saw the birth of a new kind of folk hero: the street artist.
Street art is different from graffiti. Graffiti predominantly advocates self-promotion in the form of ‘Tags’: using graffiti style to ‘write’ your name or avatar in the most predominant or risky places possible, therefore gaining kudos.
Street art is literally that: art for the man on the street.
While mainstream artists depend on the commercialism of galleries to promote their work, street art is given for free for us all to enjoy. Not only that, but the artists themselves must live an existence of criminality; working under the cover of darkness and risking life, limb and freedom in order to share their messages with the world.
These messages are often political in nature – a bold statement summarising the unheard voice of the masses in a visual form that transcends language and can be understood by all who behold it.
Bansky is the most famous example of a street art anti-hero. His images have become internationally recognised, and in the last ten years or so he has elevated the concept of street art from vandalism to a legitimate art genre. So much so, that his works are now protected by the authorities as and when they spring up. A legit Banksy piece on your wall can even increase the value of your house.
In that respect, Banksy is a classic example of a modern day folk hero.
History moves in cycles: the return of the bootleggers…
In 19th century prohibition America, bootleggers such as William S McCoy were heroes to the masses for risking arrest, and bringing quality booze to the people.
Although illegal, there was a high demand for the pleasant effect of a drink or two. McCoy was infamous for running the best quality liquor into the states, and his legend is the origin of the phrase ‘The real McCoy’.
What constitutes as contraband changes from generation to generation, and the substance currently enjoying the status of widely enjoyed but widely illegal is that most controversial of plants: Marijuana.
The laws governing the growing, production, sale and consumption of marijuana are chequered and vague to say the least. And the reason for this, I believe, is the juxtaposition between the many benefits we know to be gained from hemp, and the decades of hyperbolic anti-marijuana propaganda.
The legalities surrounding the use and production of marijuana are relaxing world-wide; most notably (and most surprisingly) in North America. It’s still a mess though – some state laws condone the production, sale and consumption of marijuana for medical use, however federal law still criminalises these activities. This often results in wholesale theft by federal lawmen from legitimate marijuana enterprises.
Political, legal and moral ambiguity like this sets the perfect stage for a new breed of anti-hero: the guerrilla marijuana grower.
When we think of marijuana growers, often the image that springs to mind are houses lined with tin foil and grow lights, producing weed on an industrial scale for sale by criminal gangs on the street.
What guerrilla growers are doing is far more bombastic – growing copious amounts of weed outdoors – hiding it in plain view.
The process begins by seeking out the perfect site – they need to be able to access it easily without arousing suspicion. There should be enough foliage around to hide your crop, whilst still allowing plentiful light. The site shouldn’t have too much traffic (you don’t want passers by to find it and either report it to the authorities or steal the plants for themselves).
Readying the site, preparing the plants in a nursery, the planting process and eventual harvest are all conducted with military precision. This is an extremely high risk venture – a bedroom hobby gone full-scale adrenalin sport.
The growers who are pulling off the biggest grows are slowly gaining notoriety in online communities. These communities are extremely secretive and cagy out of necessity, but amongst this small community the most daring and innovative growers are definitely heroes to those who watch their on-going projects with fascination and envy.
One of the most notorious UK growers is a character who has chosen many pseudonyms, one of which is Buddy Mate. Like all great anti-heroes, he disguises his identity – this time using a gorilla costume (complete with spectacles, lab coat and a pocket full of pens).
As well as winning the prize for best use of weed growing puns, Buddy is pushing the boundaries every day – always going for bigger and bigger sites, and even pioneering new botanical techniques.
If he were working with a plant of a different genus, would he have achieved such notoriety? Certainly he would not, for the nature of the job of anti-hero is such that he or she must be on the fringes of the law.
Is what they are doing wrong? Well, technically yes – it’s illegal. But is it morally wrong? We live in a society which is starting to lean towards growing your own consumables. Growing your own vegetables, raising your own livestock, making your own natural cosmetics. Why should weed be any different?
In fact, as we see laws start to relax all over the world, it’s not beyond reason to assume that we could see world-wide decriminalisation of marijuana within our life time.
Therefore, do guerrilla growers qualify for anti-hero status? Yes they do, because they are risking it all to pioneer in an activity which is widely morally acceptable, yet legally criminal.
The stories of Guerrilla growers are still incredibly obscure, and the scene is still very underground. Much like street art once was.
But as folk heroes like Buddy gain more and more notoriety and admiration from the few, surely one day that will transform into acceptance by the masses.
And that’s how change happens.