Like most things it depends on who you talk to. Local government defines graffiti as anything, usually painted, on public or private property without the permission of the property owner. Gang scripting generally associated with territory or messaging and then there is tagging the process of making a mark. Graffiti artists may tell you that they focus their work on blighted areas because they want to draw attention to civic priorities, inequality, or make statements about politics and social injustice. Some just want to show their work or that scripting and tagging are about being noticed. Some say this goes back to the early days of man and the first hand print on a cave wall – mans quest for relevance. In the eyes of property owners its vandalism and to governmental bodies and businesses it is a form of vandalism that robs monies from parks, infrastructure and public safety budgets each year.
Los Angles spent 7 million dollars last year abating graffiti. Omaha about $100,000 and Kansas City, Mo about $250,000 – surely there is a better solution . Many cities across the country have employed artist to paint murals that brighten avenues and downtown areas. Some have created spray walls or free spray areas where any of the above can do their thing. Sometimes blanking the canvas every month or so to start anew. Most murals have remained untouched for years but of late there has been a trend to “tag” someone else’s work. To tag new structures, windows, highway signs, cars, and public art. Even religious symbols that used to be untouchable are being hit.
Four years ago CHWC started a campaign to reduce the amount of gang scripting and tagging on young kids routes to school. First with the then Wizards organization to create a mural with 5th graders from a local school in Argentine. The idea was to get local investment from the kids that live in the area and that also have older brothers and sisters(make no mistake about it graffiti is not just a male sport)that might be tagging. Four artist and 5o students worked to paint a soccer player under a bridge. The mural lasted about 3 years before persistent tagging made its repair impractical. We wrote it off as bad location, no light and no visibility from homeowners. Out of sight out of mind.
Two and a half years ago,with a grant from the Kansas Art Commission, CHWC worked with 90 fifth graders in the Riverview Neighborhood to create a more cultural themed mural on a retaining wall that students pass each day going to and from school. The mural has brightened a once scary location and has been a conversation piece for the students as they point out their part of the mural to friends and family. Two weeks ago the mural was tagged. With 24 hours, one of the originally artist, the Community in Schools Coordinator and a few friends organized and with the help of 17 new students repaired the mural to its original beauty.
CHWC partnered with LISC of Greater Kansas City to provide supplies to neighborhood teens to paint small murals on the backs of garages along alleyways that once were tagged and vandalized. The alleys were also cleaned and solar powered motion detection lights were installed. The alley murals have become an attraction to neighborhood kids and given the alleys a safer and more inviting feel. Last month the murals were nationally recognized and awarded a grant of $2,500 to continue the program which now has a youth employment component.
I love graffiti art, i truly do, i think some of the work is amazing. I am totally supportive of the artist choosing the public display of their work instead of a gallery or museum and i understand using art to make strong statements about politics and social inequalities. I don’t feel the same way about gang scripting and tagging-they are a waste in my opinion. Have very little artistic appeal, offer a bad message for kids, scare seniors and devalue neighborhoods. Regardless of what I like or don’t like in the end-its all vandalism and I can’t stand that so much tax money is spent abating graffiti every year.
There has to be a better solution. I don’t know what kind of progress can be made with gang scripting and taggers but I do know that engaging neighborhood youth can have a very positive effect on a community. Working with schools and school children sends a very powerful message to neighborhoods that they are not alone. Churches, businesses, and civic organizations can help support these efforts. Murals and abatement programs may not be the answer in very situation but I believe there is a walkable bridge between government and working artists in finding solutions. A bridge, it seems to me, that both can and should cross in an attempt to address these types of issues, reduce vandalism, promote public art and community.