City life being the birthplace of many an artistic, musical, and cultural movement is not an accident. The explosive concentration of diverse lifestyles, opinions, and economic circumstances fuels a kinetic energy unique to the urban landscape where something is bound to happen. It is no surprise that this new and raw energy on occasion collides with older, more established power structures. But what do you do if you are an outsider in your own system and your weapon of choice is art?
Graffiti vandalism is one of these collision points, and one of the few crimes committed with the tools of art. These visual vigilantes do it in the name of individualism, making social and political statements, or to promote their power of expression ofuncensoredopinions. The issue here is not whether graffiti is beautiful. Whether aesthetically pleasing or not, graffiti is fundamentally a means of visual communication, and as such attracts the same love and criticism of its ideas as one would expect.
After blowing up in New York City in the 1970s as a friend to hip-hop culture, graffiti became a revered art form among insiders while remaining a nuisance of criminal proportions to others. From Chicago to Detroit to Prague at the fall of communism, graffiti takes on the varied roles of enemy of private property and friend of marginalized populations. In the ensuing battle over graffiti's true nature, the weaponry of city lawmakers determines, to a large extent, who is winning.
Allegiance to Private Property
Chicago: the air hums with industry, encased meats, and politics, and private property reigns king. A vibrant graffiti culture once thrived here similarly to New York, but efforts to clean up the city in the 90s did away with many countercultural movements, including the heavy graffiti presence. Officials instated a program called theGraffiti Blasters,whose mantra strictly holds that unsanctioned public art is vandalism that "scars the community, hurts property values and diminishes our quality of life." Ironically, the team censors these alleged acts of terrorism with a limited palette of beige, black, green, and white: thousands of blotchy, rectangular manifestations throughout the city that citizens can unanimously agree are uglier than whatever preceded them in the first place. Chicago filmmaker and artist Victor Grigas, who also doubles as graffiti aficionado and property manager, describes Graffiti Blasters as, "the number one graffiti writers in the city of Chicago." Because they are painting in a limited palette, the Graffiti Blasters' work is the most visible around town. "But they don't always respect private property and make little effort to call the property owner to ask if it's okay to blast," he goes on to say. Under the program, Chicago gets a claim to fame for being one of the few cities in the world to ban the sale of spray paint to anyone within city limits.
To keep the art form alive, urbanites at odds with government policy have had to learn the rules in order to break them legally. More and more, restaurants, bars, and grocery stores in various neighborhoods of the city have commissioned artists to produce urban art on walls to draw business to their establishments. It creates a symbiotic relationship between artist and business while legitimizing graffiti as an accepted art form. The Violet Hour, a cocktail bar in the Northside neighborhood of Wicker Park uses no signs to advertise the bar, evoking the speak-easies of the 1920s. Instead, artists are commissioned periodically to paint the entire exterior using varied techniques, from wild style to minimalism. Even so, police have been called several times mistakenly with vandalism complaints from unknowing neighbors who saw the art as a threat.
These blunders are not a rarity. The zero-tolerance stance on vandalism often unfairly lumps diverse forms of public art into the category of gang-related communication. In 2009, Chicago artist Gabriel Villa was commissioned to paint a mural on the side of a restaurant in the Southside Bridgeport neighborhood. "It was a real honor because I had the opportunity to paint a mural of my choosing." Unlike regular commission work, Villa had complete artistic freedom in a highly visible public space.In the mural, Villa portrayed a sensitive subject that raises questions about class and power. He painted police security cameras that mimic police presence with a constant, blinking blue light that are used in supposedly high-crime areas throughout the city. Making a statement that resonated with residents about the system, the unfinished mural delivered religious iconic imagery that intermingled with industrial elements. At the same time, it stood out like a sore thumb in the racial hotbed community of Bridgeport that is home to many police officers. Before Villa could finish the mural, the alderman ordered the Graffiti Blasters to cover the mural with no questions asked of the business owner.
"Art challenges people," observes Villa. "One of the reasons I think the mural was destroyed is people are uncomfortable with things they don't understand; much of public art is merely too cryptic." Villa's years of artistic experience have manifested in social messages about Chicago before, including statements on public housing and economic segregation, but rarely in such a public form. Villa laments, "the general public was never given a chance to live with it and to disagree or tag it." In Pilsen and various other Southside communities, Blasters rarely touch murals as they are largely engrained in the Mexican, Puerto Rican and African American community life and are therefore legitimized in the neighborhood.
At one point, Grigas put out a public call for public artists to come and graffiti his garage door however they pleased in the Near North neighborhood of Old Town. While many taggers and artists left their marks, the Graffiti Blasters censored the urban strokes three times. "Free speech is important," says Grigas, "all I can do is think of them as graffiti writers who are the only ones to have a license to do graffiti."
Coloring the Concrete Jungle
In the wild, wild Midwest, Detroit follows an altogether different set of rules than Mayor Daley's fair city to the south. Like a toned-down Berlin landscape, it is impossible to take in a view of the city without spotting a jungle of tags or an elaborate mural. Approaching the Detroit Museum of Contemporary Art, an onlooker would first notice the enormous tag sprawled across the building's entire front side that complements the cool concrete edifice. The same thing happens looking up at one of the oldest landmarks in the city, John K. King Books, a powder-blue five-story warehouse filled to the brim with used books and clasped by a giant tagged hand that spans three stories. In fact, unlike Chicago, artists have made their mark rampantly across the city without the permission of their government for decades.
The economic constraint resulting from a struggling auto industry followed by mass desertion of private property means that the city's budget does not make room for cleanup programs. Instead, untouched public art can be spotted from every vantage point, some that date back decades. In the largely derelict metropolis, "there would be uproar if the city spent tax money on cleaning up graffiti," explains up-and-coming Detroit documentary photographer and public artist Karpov the Wrecked Train (KTWT). With the economic hardships that have basically closed down the city's commerce, institutions like schools, hospitals, and the general infrastructure are starving for renovation.However, abandoned buildings, makeshift artist co-ops, and a burgeoning music scene spell opportunity to Detroit public artists in an otherwise baron land of inopportunity. "I don't really think there are many rules for public art here," says KTWT. Just like any animal, without predators a species will flourish; KTWT remarks, "One overpass on Rosa Parks Boulevard is a mile and a half of some of the best art you will find anywhere." Another graffiti-enthusiast's must-see landmark is the towering Michigan Central Station built in 1913 standing abandoned and fenced off. Since Amtrak ceased service in 1988, it has evolved into a public, incognito art project. Most of the several hundred windows are shattered, and its interior is consumed by the artwork of decades of public artists. Every room features diverse styles, and composes a surreal urban landscape that evolves over time.
Spaces like these are frequented by many urban artists by way ofurban exploring,which entails photography, tagging, or painting of abandoned buildings. Although it is generally easy to get into abandoned property and take a brush to the wall, recent mainstream media attention paid to the phenomenon has attracted police attention and thus deterred it. KTWT used to graffiti as a teenager. It was integral in his Detroit upbringing—tagging high school property was no big deal. "I got to meet fellow artists who taught me the ropes." In that community, he learned how to make public art without getting caught, as well as other valuable lessons for a young urban artist. Today, he uses the bombed concrete landscapes in his art via urban documentation and band photo shoots for such up-and-coming bands as Wire Eyes, providing interconnectedness and ongoing opportunities between the art and music communities in Detroit. "Detroit is a piece of shit," says Brad Potts, Wire Eyes guitarist and graffiti enthusiast, "But it's our piece of shit and we're proud of it. That's why we tag it, photograph it, and make music? That makes it ours."
Empowering the People
Take one-part Detroit anarchism, two-parts Chicago corruption and activism, and add hundreds of years of European history, you will have a public art explosion the equivalent of nuclear Chernobyl magnitude. In political climates that challenge individual rights, graffiti has been a powerful tool for re-appropriating a city to its people from a paradoxical system. May 1968 in Paris saw strikes and student uprisings in tandem with widely manifested public art throughout the city emanating such slogans as "Sois jeune et tais toi"(Be young and shut up) and "L'ennui est contre-révolutionnaire"(Boredom is counterrevolutionary). The Berlin Wall separated a city and its citizens for twenty eight years; while the East Berlin side was censored under totalitarian socialist control and had no means of expression in the public arena, West Berliners painted and repainted messages on their side that conveyed a visual catharsis to the outside world. Coming from the overly controlled visual landscape of Chicago to document graffiti in Berlin a few years ago, Grigas observed, "whether they wear a crown, a swastika, or a hammer and sickle, absolute rulers don't tend to like graffiti very much."
When oppressive Soviet rule of the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) ended abruptly in 1991, sculptor David Cerný entered the public spotlight in the country's capitol, Prague. Overnight, he had altered a monument featuring a Russian tank commemorating the city's liberation from Nazi occupation by painting it an emasculating shade of soft pink. This tank was a symbol of the Soviets as godsends that the majority of Prague citizens did not accept as true. He was promptly arrested for vandalism and the tank was painted back to its original olive color by the Czech Army. Days later, after media, public, and parliamentary outcry, the tank was officially painted pink again. As revealed in a recent press conference with Cerný, his intention was to provoke the public to consider the things they stand for blindly.
Prague, a city occupied time after time by empires and revolutionary regimes, has cultivated a political awareness among the citizens. Pavla Jonssonová, rock musician and professor at Charles University who has been teaching Prague culture and counterculture since 1990 says of the city, "It is the capitol of a country utopia where in a short historical moment, 1989–2002, poets and musicians ruled the country."Today, she says, "Music and art scenes are flourishing, blissfully ignoring lack of art sponsorship."
What affects public acceptance of artwork that challenges public opinion? Cerný says this is dependent on "the intelligence of local politicians and the public—tolerance." In view of that, is political control of controversial artwork in the name of conservation more desirable than the ability to evolve as a culture by interacting with counterculture? Villa observes, "When we see dynamic images as artists, we try to figure them out. But I don't think most people want to deal with being taken out of their comfort zone on their own turf."
Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky said of the worth of an art form, "Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to walk about into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?"Unsanctioned public art is not inherently rust on a respectable city's varnish. "I believe in art," asserts Gabriel Villa. "Even though somebody can cover up one hundred murals and dub it vandalism, it is still a valuable tool that empowers the people."Walking today through docile Berlin, graffiti mecca of the planet, one is led to ask the question, is art unapproved by the government really powerful enough to be something that, as Chicago's Mayor Daley asserts, "scars the community, hurts property values and diminishes our quality of life?"
KARPOV THE WRECKED TRAIN-DETROIT