spray paint renegades; or: read the writing on the wall

And the issue of today is: graffiti!

There’s been a lot of talk about graffiti lately on all sorts of different levels. There has been a crackdown on it in St. John’s, there’s been lots of talk about it in the national media, and of course, the larger Canadian cities like Toronto and Vancouver are constantly dealing with issues surrounding graffiti, how to control it, and how to deal with the graffiti artists who are fucking with the law and order of their preciously ordered urban environment.

Last week, I decided I was going to spend an afternoon taking photos around the city. There was no method to my mayhem, I just went out, with my camera, ready to take pictures of anything and everything that I thought worthy of a click and a snap. I headed downtown to see what I could see there (and to get an expensive, caffeinated beverage of my choice), and it came to pass that I was particularly drawn in by the graffiti that I saw: everywhere. After taking some pretty cool snaps of some pretty cool things, and seeing some pretty vulgar and totally pointless scribbles, I started to think about the philosophy and politics of writing/drawing on the walls, and why there is such an uproar about it.

I don’t mind graffiti. In fact, if I were to take a side in this battle, I would side with the graffiti artists fairly quickly. I enjoy graffiti when it is tastefully done, and when it doesn’t specifically deface an important building, sign, or historical site. Some of the urban art that can be found in and around a city is actually quite breath-taking. Often, it does make a statement of some sort, but as long as there is no intent to be malicious, there is nothing wrong with it, right?

Wrong! says The Man. Unfortunately, not everyone has such a mildly stoic and even keel opinion on the matter. There is a significant effort to squash urban art by way of force, and beside the fact that I think it’s a shame, it’s a backward way to go about it; trying to squash rebellious behaviour is never particularly effective when it’s done by way of force. Yeah, sure: there’s a lot of shit out there, people writing their names all over the place, over signs and on storefronts and such; not to mention the vulgar words and phrases one can find written just about anywhere. That’s the sort of stuff that’s worth squashing, but nearly un-squashable. But what about the beautiful pieces of art that show up on the sides of buildings, in alley ways, on pavement and in parks? And, why aren’t these artists taking their art into the galleries, where they could likely make a killing selling it? The simple answer to that question is: that’d be selling out! Graffiti is it’s own form of art; restricted to a smaller and prescribed canvas takes the energy, motive and satisfaction out of it. It’s like rock’n’roll: it’s not just the music, it’s an attitude.

Truth is, graffiti, urban art, whatever name you choose to give it, is an important part of urban culture. It’s a way for cities to change and grow, it’s a form of free speech, it’s a burst of colour in a mess of concrete and asphalt. Not that I necessarily agree with it, but there’s a spot in an alley way in St. John’s that has the defiant prescription: Spray it, don’t say it. And ya know, people see these statements all the time; perhaps it wouldn’t hurt to spray it. Then, of course, you get people who dislike graffiti culture so much that they would necessarily disagree with whatever statement one might spray. Really, you can’t win. The thing about graffiti and urban art is that you can never really persecute the perpetrators, because they can be really difficult to catch. I think the idea that a city might be able to rid itself of such rebellion, or reckless behaviour is ridiculous. It’s a very classic example of misunderstanding that will contribute to a possible rise in defacing important landmarks and significant urban property. I think that this kind of situation calls for a meeting of the minds, or at least a compromise of some sort. Sure, the artists will hate having to give up some of their of-the-moment work, and the politicians will likely cringe at the idea that they would have to give a little to get a little, but if it means everyone can stop concerning themselves with such small matters and focus on other, more important ones: I think both groups would agree that it’s worth it.

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One thought on “spray paint renegades; or: read the writing on the wall

  1. The anti-graffiti camp has one very valid argument to consider. Graffiti is the defacement of private piece of property without the permission of the owner.

    If it was an amazing piece of art, with rich detail and color, but on the hood of your car or side of your house, how would you feel?

    That is why they are fighting it. I just think they are choosing the wrong tatic. Understand the culture, offer alternatives, and encourage the self policing of the community and you might see some beautiful art arise. Then again you can’t stop it all, there will always be fringe elements who just won’t play ball.

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