15 April, 2008

Graffito a-go-go... "New Times- San Luis Obispo", May 2008

With all the recent dialogue surrounding graffiti in our area; due in no small part, to public interest in artist Nic Rodriguez’s arrest as a suspected graffiti vandal, I beg the question: What constitutes “art” in SLO County? And furthermore, who is responsible for making that determination? Of course, the simple answer is, there is no simple answer. One could just as easily ask: Who determines art anywhere? Or, who dictates what is beautiful, funny, or enjoyable within a society? Certainly anyone who has traveled or observed others to any degree, will attest that one person’s ideas of art, beauty, comedy, style, taste, etc. will vary from one end of the globe to another- and further still within a single population. And anyone with parents or children knows that what one-generation regards as beautiful, or funny- the former may have found obscene, and the latter may find oppressive.

I venture to guess that artists themselves determine art forms in a given society. But who legitimizes their choices? Patrons, police, an Arts Council, critics, public opinion? And who’s to say art should be legitimized at all? Surely, if beauty is in the eye of beholder, art should be similarly placed.

This is a constant theme in my own home, as I contemplate the smeared and finger-swiped globs of paint that my son presents to me, and sincerely proclaim it his “best work yet!” it is heavily discussed, dissected, and critiqued; and at the age of 8, he is the most prolific artist I know. His masterpieces overflow from under magnets across our refrigerator and he exudes a confidence to rival all the self-important expressionists combined. But would my neighbor regard his works as “art”? Would placing them behind glass and frame legitimize these pieces? I could print out an 8x10” Jackson Pollack painting, and under a magnet on the refrigerator, it is reduced to a child’s random splattering. Okay, Pollack may be too easy a target… Picasso, for that matter! I’ll stop while I’m ahead… The point is, art itself may be too easy a target. Anything as open to interpretation as Art is subject to critique, but when a society begins to criticize creativity itself- in any form, it is treading a dangerous ground. Anyone remember communist China and its artistic bonfires? With trepidation, I presume to imply that San Luis Obispo’s graffiti issues echo that of a nation brought to its knees by a communist dictatorship. And obviously, it is not my place to determine what you consider art, but as a modern, educated culture, let us make an informed distinction between the imposing, territorial nature of “tagging” and the free form expression with a message that is “street art”; known en masse as, “graffiti”.

Regardless of whether or not you consider it vandalism, tagging- or the frequent writing of ones’ name on random surfaces, is in my opinion, just plain ugly. Doubtless, we’ve all seen the “SOAK” tag scrawled across newspaper stands, stop signs and rubbish bins… It practically blankets this county. Placed seemingly at random, with no regard or respect for property or composition, it is neither beautiful, nor useful in any way, and there is nothing funny or clever about the tag itself. And as far as I am able to discern, there is no deeper message to be derived from it. Therefore, what is the appeal of marking a nearly unintelligible, and largely meaningless word as often as possible? It seems more reminiscent of a dog marking its territory than art. Dare we call it creative expression? Dismissively, I don’t even regard tagging as worthy of discussion; it is merely an unattractive nuisance and blemish upon the face of street art. For every stride made toward legitimizing the truly free public expression that is street art, tagging drags it two steps backwards and assists in labeling it vandalism. But far more interesting than my own opinion, was that of several street artists I encountered earlier this month at the opening of “Urban Escapades” in the Jeff Claassen Gallery. In a rather telling interpretation of his own take on this subject, Claassen has designated a small portion of wall-space in his gallery an “Authorized Graffiti Area”, which visitors and artists alike have not been shy about putting to use. In less than three hours on opening night the “authorized” space became completely full, and spilled over onto its neighboring, un-authorized walls. Spray paint, permanent markers, postal stickers, and even lipstick were the mediums of choice and “Death to SOAK” was a resounding theme amongst participants. In fact, the “SOAK” tag has become so infamously frowned-upon by local street artists, that the word itself is now a mocking insult. And don’t bother jumping to conclusions here, stereotypes did not abound… As expected, the graffiti-inspired show drew the usual crowd of teenagers in torn pants, and art-after-dark participants. But along with the regulars, the crowd was an eclectic mix of graphic designers, a KSBY news crew, families with young children, street artists, retirees, freegans and out of town art patrons. With over 250 visitors, the tiny gallery space was filled well beyond a comfortable capacity, making it impossible not to rub elbows (and other appendages) with everyone you passed. However, even amidst the frenzy, the tone of the crowd was enthusiastic and appreciative, and not a single item was reported damaged or stolen. Touchingly, in a show of solidarity, many of the participating artists gifted Nic Rodriguez with art supplies to replenish those taken as evidence against him by the San Luis Obispo Police Department.

As of his first court hearing last week Thursday, none of the items taken (finished work, blank canvasses, sketchbooks, paints, pens, and brushes) had been returned to him. However, before any legal negotiations took place, the City had reduced his charges from 24 counts of vandalism to 14. It seems now that with such an outpouring of support, not to mention a sudden demand for his paintings, the example the City intended to make of Rodriguez has backfired a bit. A growing number of supporters have rallied around him and support the claim that he is not a vandal, but rather a legitimate artist. According to Rodriguez himself, in their enthusiasm the arresting officers failed to read his Miranda rights. So, is this going to be like an episode of “Law & Order”? Is the case to be dismissed due to a misstep by overzealous cops? Not quite. Rodriguez has secured the services of attorney David L. Fisher, and it’s going to be an expensive battle. In effort to help raise funds towards Rodriguez’s mounting legal fees, Claassen intends to auction off the 2x4’ “authorized graffiti area” or “tag board” later this month. Regardless of what you label it, graffiti is not a bad word and graffitists cannot continue to be stereotyped as hoodlums and vandals. They are instructors, salesmen, community philanthropists, and activists, men and women; they are a segment of society fed up with the bombardment of billboards, mass promotion, and forced opinions- taking it upon themselves to reclaim our civic spaces. They are of the belief that messages intended for the public, should not be limited to those who can afford to purchase or rent the platform. You might call them, artistic squatters. But dare we call them artists? And if we give them an inch, will they take a mile? It’s become increasingly clear in recent weeks that ours is a community divided over the issue. With conservatives publicly threatening to “cane” an artist suspected of posting graffiti, and liberals rallying in his defense, “authorized graffiti areas” may be more than just a tongue-in-cheek message to the establishment; they may be a legitimate compromise. Many have proposed that the City explore alternative choices to graffiti, such as those recently embraced with much success by communities in Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, and Toronto (among others)… Cities embracing and containing public art by providing open arts spaces. In much the way that skateboard parks have become embraced as a safer, more controlled, alternative to street-skating, an open arts space provides a community with a forum for large-scale public expression. The walls are intended to be blank canvases, painted-over at will by children, street artists and traditional artists alike. Graffitists are provided with a space to collaborate and spend time legally and legitimately honing their artistic talents, which may later lead to careers in the Arts field. Designs are not rushed and artists are not skittishly posting look-outs for police while painting. In participating cities, the open arts spaces have helped to discourage private property damage, and in turn, lowered the prevalence of graffiti in surrounding areas. These spaces have even become something of a tourism-draw and a symbol of the urban maturation of the communities. Not buying it? Think of how many people come to SLO and regard the gum-wall as a must see. Providing a public arts space within a community puts the authority to determine what they consider art, back in their hands. If a person doesn’t appreciate something on the open art wall, they simply paint over it. If you think that you can do better than that, you paint over it. No one wants to see SLO inundated by spray painted stencils, postal stickers, tagging and painted-over graffiti. But do we wish to live in a community that, even with a successful Arts Council in place, stifles abstract expression in favor of sterile pastoral scenes and vineyard-scapes? It seems that at present we must concede ourselves to the fact that the authorities in this town make the determination between vandalism and art. But I take consolation in the occasional well-placed street art I find around town- however short-lived. “Garbage Sale” signs on telephone poles usually last a day or so. And recently my son remarked to me that the silhouetted stencil of a cat on the side of a downtown building was his favorite painting “…because it looks like it’s climbing up that wall to catch a mouse.” I responded, “Well… it was honey, but the mice have been painted-over.”

Evidently, the cat was authorized to stay.

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