I used to have a favorite piece of graffiti. It was a beautiful stenciled piece of a horse’s skeleton, frozen mid-gallop. I would say it was probably two-thirds scale, so it was a pretty large piece, and it was on the outside wall of a local watering hole in downtown for a very long time. Eventually someone painted over it. This is a part of the natural life-cycle of street art, but I regret never having gotten a photo of it.
I believe that graffiti can be good for communities, and I believe that the tendency of city governments and private property owners to paint over these pieces of art keeps the turnover high and the work fresh. I’ve gone ahead and listed some reasons for you to enjoy pieces of graffiti in your town.
Graffiti Beautifies Unused Spaces.
Graffiti is a great way to liven up unused spaces. By unused spaces, I’m referring to things like blank grey retaining walls, overpass supports, cement culverts and things like that. Spaces like these call out to graffiti artists, and who can blame them? Vast planes of grey are oppressive, especially in quantity; they express nothing, they provide no benefit. They are an intellectual and spiritual wasteland. And finding pieces of what is essentially folk art in those otherwise depressing and empty scenes can cause surprise, delight, and spark interest. If it isn’t already painted, why not put art there? The picture below is of a graffiti tag painted on the inside of a cement culvert at Little Squalicum here in Bellingham. I was delighted when I noticed it. I would think that someone has to be really devoted to their craft to crawl inside a wet drainage culvert to do this, and I like to think they hoped it would surprise people.
Graffiti is Art for Art’s Sake.
If you’re interested in artistic integrity and intellectual purity, it’s hard to beat graffiti. It is, by and large, anonymous by nature. It is immovable. Nobody (with the possible exception of Banksy) performs graffiti to earn personal fame. It cannot be purchased (for the most part) by wealthy people to be placed in private collections. It will never make anyone rich, as it is impractically difficult to commoditize. Banksy, perhaps the world’s most famous street artist, has placed pieces that are iconic, beautiful, and extremely valuable… but in most cases the structure that they’re painted on would need to be at least partially demolished in order to make money from it. These pieces are donations; in the open where people can see them. They are truly for everyone. This photo was taken by my good friend and very talented photographer Phil Rose. The statue of the dancer is titled “Grace,” and it is graffiti. It is an illicit piece of art placed in a public space without permission of any kind. And it is beautiful and it is for everyone. Grace is gone now; all graffiti is temporary in nature. But I think of her whenever I pass her island.
Graffiti Gives a Town Its Identity.
Not everyone is going to agree with this one, but graffiti gives a town a voice, an identity. Not a voice of consensus, because consensus neuters art. Art is an individual expression, and each piece of art might impact you, and it might not. So it’s easy to think that a piece of art put up by an individual without the consensus or permission of the community is not the voice of that community, but it’s important to realize that communities are composed of individuals, and collections of graffiti within a town or community give you a window into the spirit of that town. This image is some crude painted writing on the cover to a subterranean utility vault, but the message really represents a lot of what Bellingham is about for me, and it impacts me every time I see it. It reads, “Why are you committing most of your attention to life’s least important things?”
Graffiti Starts Conversations.
This is along the same lines of the above, but is less community focused. Graffiti makes people think. Graffiti poses questions. And in its anonymity, it allows people to make political statements that hang in the air, faceless and voiceless, like an individual thought given form. Graffiti can also give a public voice to people who are economically or racially marginalized, without their identity interfering with their message. This photo is one simple statement, spray painted on the retaining wall under a freeway overpass. This also is gone now, but I was impressed by it. It can be interpreted many different ways; it invites thought and conversation.
Graffiti May Precede Economic Revitalization.
My good friend Phil has been on two trips to Detroit recently, and you know what? Detroit, the modern day ghost town, has a vibrant street art scene. What does this mean? Well, any art scene often precedes gentrification and the resulting economic revitalization of urban areas. Why does this happen? Well, art withers in a state of comfort. Cities in decline, and Detroit in particular, experience a serious lack of comfort. People from other parts of the country see a thriving art scene in places where the living is rough but cheap, and well… the rest is history. It’s happened in neighborhoods in Seattle, in areas of New York, and in parts of San Fransisco and in southern California as well. The photo below is also from Phil Rose, and it’s of a tremendous piece of graffiti taking up an entire wall of a crumbling two storey house.
Graffiti Gives People Ownership of Public Spaces.
This may seem a little more abstract, and your mileage may vary, but pieces of art placed in towns gives people ownership of public spaces. And I don’t mean the facile pieces of art approved by a vote of the city council or whatever. Remember, consensus neuters art. When people feel a sense of ownership in connection with public spaces, they are less likely to litter, and more likely to care for a place. It’s the anodyne to feelings of alienation and marginalization. Below is a graffiti portrait of Willie Nelson that graced a concrete support under a freeway overpass in town. It was done with stencils, can you imagine?
Graffiti Can Be Beautiful, Witty, and is Temporary.
There’s a lot of fuss made about the costs to remove graffiti, and from what I’ve seen around town, on external walls it mostly takes a can of paint. But there are non-permanent forms of graffiti as well, including chalk graffiti, sticker graffiti, and even objects taped to external walls. I heard a story recently about a young man in Bellingham who was charged with graffiti for taping polaroid photos to external walls. The tortillas talked about in an earlier post can be considered a type of street art, and even some “permanent” graffiti is beautiful and enriches the community. Please, be sure to take time to appreciate your community’s hard working street artists.