Graffiti: supporting art, fighting vandalism

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 19 | March 4 – 10, 2010

Life without colour is a world of flats and greys. The streets of Regina are full of peeling paint, cinderblocks, and cold concrete surfaces. To some, however, these blank surfaces jump out with the unlimited potential of vast outdoor canvases. Some of these people work their craft in the daylight, commissioned to convert mediocrity into magnificence. A rare few prefer to create murals in shadows and anonymity. Still others prefer to pick up spray cans in order to leave unintelligible signatures – or simply “fuck you” – on houses, garage doors, and mailboxes.

Graffiti resides in the strange borderland of deviance. Like all deviant behaviours, it has its light and dark sides, with some grey areas in between. As an art form, it entails a desire to reclaim utilitarian spaces in the name of human creativity. As vandalism, it arises out of alienation and frustration, and defaces the property of everyday people who are forced to scrub or paint over the mess.

Both types of graffiti are common in certain areas of Regina; where there is poverty and dilapidation, you will often find art and vandalism existing side by side. Communities are brought together by a shared commons of artwork, but vandalism provokes bitterness and withdrawal. Hate speech is not an uncommon product of spray-painted frustration. Often tags signify more than mere vandalism, as they may promote gang identities.

Graffiti in Regina is a synthesis of stories and pictures. Some pictures reveal brilliant flashes of creativity, while others reveal petty insensitivity. Some stories emerge from the perspectives of the people who live and work among graffiti. A liaison officer who sees to it that messages of hate are taken down. Business owners who appreciate beauty. A professor who has studied the relationship between art and deviance.

Other stories emerge, fully formed, from the artworks themselves. An immaculate, heartbreaking memorial. Unskilled efforts to heal ugliness with messages of love. The symbiosis between the beautiful and the grotesque. Ultimately, the common theme and conclusion from this mosaic of strange and wonderful imagery is how art contributes towards making life in this great yet troubled city worth living.

Combatting vandalism

Speed is everything on the front lines of the fight against vandalism. Tags have the tendency to reproduce like rabbits, at least according to the “broken windows” theory. The idea is that if a broken window isn’t fixed, then someone is likely to think little of throwing a rock through another window, until eventually every window in the building is broken.

The theory assumes that the environment affects an individual’s behaviour, and something will seem more acceptable if it seems normal. In other words, vandalism must be nipped in the bud, or it becomes an epidemic. Although the theory has not been proven empirically, it tends to form the intuitive basis of graffiti policy discussion, and was implicitly recognized by everyone interviewed.

Regina’s graffiti management policy reflects this philosophy of swift removal. A property owner generally has 72 hours to remove graffiti from their property, unless the graffiti is hate speech, in which case the owner has 24 hours. Those who fail to comply will have their properties cleaned by the city and then billed for the service. Graffiti maintenance costs the city of Regina roughly $80,000 annually, just to clean city property.

“The graffiti bylaw isn’t a popular bylaw by any stretch of the imagination,” says Brady Burnett, community liaison for the Heritage Community Association, “because it makes the victim of the graffiti vandalism responsible for removing it, or it will be done by the city and charged to their taxes. It makes them financially liable.”

When asked if he feels that the policy needs to be extended or updated, he shakes his head “I don’t know what the answer is … Our tack on graffiti is based solely on the elimination of graffiti.” He and the association have fought graffiti vandalism by getting the word out about the city’s policy. “We’ve knocked on doors and talked to people about the bylaws, and about what they can do, and what we can do to eliminate graffiti.” The association has also volunteered to help with cleanups in some cases.

Part of Burnett’s job entails making sure that the city’s graffiti regulations are implemented in the area. He finds that it’s a constant battle to keep spirits lifted and vandalism at bay. “Unfortunately,” he says, “people seem to grudgingly accept it that graffiti is going to be part of their life in many cases, and I find that there is often a very defeatist attitude.”

Burnett resents any implication that non-consensual graffiti in his neighbourhood might have any artistic value. “The type of graffiti we’re dealing with, almost 100 per cent is very offensive, it’s not tasteful, it’s not skilfully done … It’s often obscene; occasionally you will see hate speech, mostly obscenities and tagging.

“It’s really an indication of disrespect of other people and other people’s property. [When] people have asked graffiti artists to come and paint murals on their garage … that’s with consent, it’s done tastefully and it’s done skilfully.”

When asked about what motivates graffiti vandals, Burnett says that he couldn’t say, although he knows that graffiti is tied to poor social conditions. “It’s a manifestation of larger problems. You often will find it in places where the condition of the houses is deteriorating, where your social conditions aren’t as good as they are in suburban areas. If graffiti were our only problem, that wouldn’t be so bad. It’s as much a symptom as a condition of other, more serious social conditions.”

Regardless of vandals’ individual intentions, however, Burnett’s experiences with hate speech and obscenities have given him a clear perspective on vandalism. “I see it as disrespect. It’s an act of disrespect to other people by vandalizing their property.”

Expression and consent

Consent forms the basis of Regina’s graffiti management program. Regina’s graffiti bylaws require that property owners give prior written authorization to graffiti artists before their walls can be used for public art. The bylaws make no distinction between drawings, inscriptions, or writings, painting them all with the same brush.

However, the doctrine of consent has serious shortcomings, says U of R professor Marc Spooner. He studied art and deviance for his doctoral dissertation, which dealt in large part with graffiti. “I would think that if it’s a nice piece of art, even if it wasn’t initially consensual, the business owner would come to appreciate it.”

Spooner argues that certain spaces should be considered fair game as canvases for art. The neglected walls of businesses, black or grey cinderblock walls, the undersides of bridges, and other public spaces that have no prior aesthetic merit are fair game. “Public spaces for me are fine,” he says.

However, Spooner draws the line at graffiti on residential properties, even if the graffiti has artistic merit. “The only time I consider it vandalism is if it’s on someone’s home. I don’t condone that.”

Spooner also makes a clear distinction between graffiti art and tagging. “Some say that tagging is sometimes an entry level, where people can hone their skills and then progress onto nicer works of art. I don’t really buy that. I think that there are two different forms, and I think that before you start practicing your tag you should do that at home, and not people’s property.

“I’m not a big fan of tags, and I can understand wanting to remove them, because they often can be gang-affiliated, and we don’t want to create conditions where that’s favourable in a city.”

Luisa Graybiel is better disposed than most when it comes to tags. She’s the owner of Indigo, a glassware shop in the Cathedral area. The building bears three murals, as well as a recent tag blazoned in bright red paint. “Vandalism means just painting over a garage door haphazardly, and you know, just to be obnoxious about it, or vandalism in terms of destroying property,” she says. If there’s some level of intricacy or care, she says, she doesn’t object to it on aesthetic grounds.

“When you look at the building,” she says, referring to the eastern wall, “the upper part has been stylized or intended to be art, and the lower part, there’s a person who [tagged] it. He’s thinking it’s an art, there’s a statement he’s trying to convey … It could be a statement of creativity, that at the moment he was thinking of something.”

Graybiel doesn’t mind the tag on her building, but says that she recognizes it will have to be removed before other tags go up around it. “I know it doesn’t make the building look very nice. We are used to clean, white walls.”

Pointing out the window, she indicates a line of dumpsters that have been spray-painted in bright colours. “A teacher from one of the schools had put together a program for students one weekend to paint those [dumpsters]. They covered the graffiti with artwork, which I believe has stayed there for a few months now.”

The dumpsters are not works of fine art, but they are beautiful, in their own way, with statements like “you are free” and “fly above the clouds.” They were painted with prior consent. Much more intricate and elaborate pieces of art, however, may be painted over because they did not receive written authorization. The doctrine of consent may be too restrictive to promote the healthy proliferation of artwork, particularly in the absence of public spaces dedicated to graffiti experimentation.

“There should be a park or some areas in Regina that should be designated a graffiti place for young people,” says Graybiel. “In a city, to be vibrant, there [has to be] a place for that sort of thing.”

Community and public art

Residents of the Cathedral area rejoice in the warm richness of their graffiti art, but also struggle to stem the tide of graffiti vandalism. Awe and dismay intermingle on the streets of the community, as walls are graced by beautiful mosaics while mailboxes are scrawled with tags and gang signs.

Spooner says that the value of graffiti art emerges partially from the fact that an investment of time, energy, and creativity is given freely to the community. ”There’s a lot of great examples of fine work that make the city a nicer, more vibrant place to live.” He mentions the long chain of murals that stretch behind Mac’s on Albert St. “Those are some fantastic pieces of work, so I’m always appreciative when I see that kind of work on a building.

“I enjoy looking at the creativity and the detail that people are able to paint. It’s beautiful, and in fact, in some ways, I see it as an act of altruism because they’re giving back to the community. They’re giving their time and their skills, and asking nothing in return other than viewership.”

Graffiti also enables reflection on the issues that afflict a community, Spooner says. “It’s often a commentary on different social issues in a city. Often the graffiti art will be in neglected areas of the city: abandoned, dilapidated areas.”

Graffiti’s increasing recognition as an art form has been very lucrative for some graffiti artists. Businesses often find that graffiti artwork makes an excellent promotion; just look at the side of the Fainting Goat restaurant. Spooner points out that in Britain an elusive graffiti painter going by the name Bansky has sold graffiti masterpieces for up to $1 million. In many areas of Regina, he says, masterpieces are being given away for free.

Graybiel argues that attempting to suppress graffiti as a whole is more likely to impoverish a community than enrich it. “It’s part of our community, and we cannot really deny that, [or] deny them the opportunity. They are members of our community, and that’s how they express themselves. Unless they vandalize or paint over other people’s work, I think it’s something that we have to bring everybody together and talk about.”

Taggers and graffiti vandals are among the most marginalized of any community. Cleaning up after them may maintain property values and discourage more brazen acts of vandalism, but it does not amount to a policy of engagement. The question becomes whether it’s possible to encourage a shift from the dark side to the world of art and creative expression. Can we prevent or discourage the windows from being broken in the first place?

Beautiful windows

Shelley Hoffman remembers when she commissioned graffiti artwork to ward off graffiti vandalism. She paid an artist to paint the fence behind her hair salon, The Room, in the hopes that it would discourage taggers and beautify the area. The piece is a tribute to “Soul Sisters,” an annual dinner and concert presented by The Room that raises money for emergency housing for women and children.

Her plan worked.

“I was aware of the trouble with graffiti,” she says, “so I knew that if I had someone do some graffiti, then they wouldn’t tag my property. [This was] a little bit of prevention, but also in the neighbourhood there already were some graffiti murals done.”

She and her husband, who owns houses in the Cathedral area and elsewhere, are quite familiar with the tagging issue, since the houses get tagged frequently. However, she says, the Soul Sisters mural has saved her fence. “That mural has helped. We haven’t had anything tagged.”

Artwork and murals may represent an inverse correlate of the broken windows theory; let’s call it the beautiful windows theory. Just as the presence of tags may encourage more tagging and disrespect for the physical environment, artwork and murals may endow respect and discourage vandalism.

Perhaps the best example can be found on the western wall of Indigo. It bears a memorial to a girl named Tesalyn Zizzy-Mustatia, who died in 2002. According to Graybiel, the piece, which has been there for years, has never been vandalized. People respect the mural and leave it alone. “There is a certain degree of respect,” she says.

Of course, not everyone is the kind of artist that can produce these murals, but anyone who picks up a spray paint can has the potential to do good. The painted dumpsters were created by amateurs, but they are more colourful and attractive than tagged dumpsters. Again, these paintings have not been vandalized by taggers. There is an implicit respect that most taggers seem to have for their expressive counterparts, and this may be the best way to discourage vandalism and encourage artistic expression.

Of course, it always helps to address the social issues that make people feel alienated and turn to tagging as a form of release. “You have to look at why that individual feels that tagging is their only means of expression,” says Spooner. “If you peel back a couple of layers, that student’s probably not doing well in school.”

Graybiel agrees. “I think they are looking for something to do. They’re bored, they have no other way to express [themselves], that’s probably the limitations that they have. If we give them the opportunity … there are other avenues or other creative things they can do.”

Public graffiti walls and active encouragement of creative spray painting may represent the other half that is missing from Regina’s graffiti policy. These have taken place, but somewhat haphazardly, and not as the product of a coordinated effort. Fixing broken windows is one thing, but making beautiful windows is another. “In this type of society, I think that everybody just wants to have blank walls [and] manicured lawns,” says Graybiel. But that’s an unreasonable expectation in areas with massive cement walls and rusted dumpsters; people are going to rebel against utilitarian ugliness. Nor is gentrification the answer.

Allowing people to reclaim public spaces in the name of art may be the only way to discourage other people from trashing public spaces to express their feelings. The best way to engage with alienation is to allow people to recreate their environments and express themselves. The choice is between broken windows and beautiful windows, and it could mean the difference between tagged mailboxes and a living outdoor art gallery.

Declass

How old is graffiti? It may surprise you.

In one form or another, graffiti has been around for thousands of years. It dates back to the earliest cave paintings in the dark recesses of human history, when early humans drew pictures of hunting large animals. In the Book of Daniel, the disembodied hand of God draws graffiti on a wall that warns King Belshazzar of Babylon of his impending death.

More recently, the writing found on the walls of Pompeii has revealed the personal lives of everyday people in a Roman city. Buried by the eruption of a volcano in 79 C.E., Pompeii was excavated in modern times to reveal a city that was felled midstride by a cloud of smoke and ash.

Archaeologists have discovered that while modern graffiti tends to express social and political ideals, ancient graffiti largely entailed declarations of love, rhetoric, and daily activities. There are also messages containing graphically sexual content. Pregnancy, homosexuality, oral sex, and intermingle with mundane details and famous sayings.

Besides telling us a lot about the culture and literacy of Roman citizens at the time, the graffiti of Pompeii also reminds us of our common humanity with an alien culture in the distant past. Below are some samples of Roman graffiti that were written around the same time as the Gospel of Luke. This is the ancient Roman declass.

  • Weep, you girls.  My penis has given you up.  Now it penetrates men’s behinds.  Goodbye, wondrous femininity!
  • Watch it, you that shits in this place! May you have Jove’s anger if you ignore this.
  • On April 19th, I made bread
  • Remove lustful expressions and flirtatious tender eyes from another man’s wife; may there be modesty in your expression.
  • Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog
  • Vibius Restitutus slept here alone and missed his darling Urban
  • What a lot of tricks you use to deceive, innkeeper. You sell water but drink unmixed wine
  • Celadus the Thracian gladiator is the delight of all the girls
  • Amplicatus, I know that Icarus is buggering you.  Salvius wrote this.
  • Satura was here on September 3rd
  • I screwed the barmaid
  • Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here.  The women did not know of his presence.  Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion.
  • The city block of the Arrii Pollii in the possession of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius is available to rent from July 1st.  There are shops on the first floor, upper stories, high-class rooms and a house.  A person interested in renting this property should contact Primus, the slave of Gnaeus Alleius Nigidius Maius.
  • O walls, you have held up so much tedious graffiti that I am amazed that you have not already collapsed in ruin.

Full Feature Credits
All writing and photographs by Alex Colgan
Graphics by Mason Pitzel

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One Response to Graffiti: supporting art, fighting vandalism

  1. Pingback: Jelly Beans, Colour, and Community «

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