15 June 2011




I have made no survey or public sampling of how the General Public feels about graffiti. My guess is that opinions fall in about 2.7 different categories.

The first category would be the considerable majority of the public, certainly land and building owners, most adults, and a considerable percentage of remaining unnamed categories. Manifesto to this category: graffiti is an abomination and an affront to civilization.  A harbinger of the decline of a neighborhood, and an indicator for a lack of respect for law enforcement. An expensive pain in the neck and worse.

The second category is the makers of graffiti. A disenfranchised group, not looking to make anyone else happy except in their own crew.  A group striving for a voice in a world that doesn't want to give them one, an angry group that takes risk to make angry things.  The quality of this effort is mainly crude and clueless, but there is sheer genius mixed in just to keep things interesting.

The .7 category is my snide way of describing the graffiti admirers and apologists, who see beauty in both the struggle and (at least some of) the art of this way of life. I say .7, because this is a small group who in a mostly chameleon way advocate for the graffiti groups, yet fade off when the anger of ugliness of the situation make their appreciation less then appropriate.

I have appreciated each of these different viewpoints, at times.

I've certainly been disappointed and dismayed by crude and fresh spray paint on newly constructed walls or at scratched glass on a great old building. There is nothing redeeming about acts like those, and it's  hard not to loose all sympathy for the back story that induced that behavior.

And the mostly young men who are in the middle of that culture? Of course they look at things differently. Graffiti is one of the few ways that they can express themselves besides physical violence that will be noticed by the outside world.

And I have played the part of the chameleon myself. For some of the graffiti faire is truly art, born in the crucible of the subversive, and bearing an undeniable truth, and the artist in me sympathizes with that.

I was on a jury recently reviewing three teams of students from the Art Center College here in Pasadena.  Their project involved a tie-in with Art-Works, an outreach to disenfranchised but artistically inclined youths, also in Pasadena. The project: an Art Park for youth. A neighborhood pavilion and youth gathering place for accommodating graffiti.  I viewed from afar the Art Center students journey of discovering the mind set of these youth, and the quest for making a place that could successfully accommodate these cries for recognition.  Did this effort too closely resemble the .7 category, recognizing the beauty in street art, but failing to acknowledge the gorilla tactic nature of the beast, or the practical realities of gang culture?  Did the projects really acknowledge the full set of realities that face these youth, or was it just another feel-good pandering as a salve for some transient guilt?

From my vantage point, those answers were not really apparent. What was apparent was what a tremendous asset (admittedly with some pie-in-sky thinking) something like a graffiti park could be to a community.  It could be visually stunning, and add a cultural and community dynamic that would add depth and give distinction to a forgotten part of the community.  It could draw-in a traditionally disenfranchised group into the hopes and dreams of the larger community. And it would, by default, raise the standards for graffiti art as a whole in the area it existed in.  The risk is that if it were botched, if it could not be claimed by the group it was aiming at, it would relegate itself as a place to spawn even worse behavior. High stakes for the folks who envisioned this thing, and for the designers who worked to flesh-out that vision.

In the crafted city, every effort that is embarked upon to build up the city fabric and make it more beautiful, and more able to accommodate the needs of its inhabitants is a desirable thing. Let the art side of graffiti be embraced, channeling it into the good energy of the community.  Let the effort respond to the bad and the ugly that comes from the hurt and separation of those who make it, and turn it into something positive.

Is it worth a try?

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