CHU SIN CHUNG Adrian 332874 Urban Design Theory ABPL90017 Research Essay Tuesday 16.15‐17.45, Asia Centre G01 Elek Pafka 3. REGULATING GRAFITTI In what contexts, and based on whose judgements, should graffiti/street art be tolerated, eradicated or protected? Present the argument (not opinions) both for and against tolerance, eradication and protection. Graffiti have always been the centre of debate and controversy. The reasons for these have lied in the fact that there have never been rules that established when graffiti stop being vandalism and start becoming art. Moreover, there also appears to be a lack of understanding regarding the true motives and meanings behind their creation that often leads to simplifying generalisations and stereotypes that do not reflect the real scheme of things. The purpose of this essay is to make an attempt at understanding graffiti and their creators and from there argue whether graffiti should be tolerated, eradicated, or protected. It might be useful first defining what a graffiti is. Tracey Bowen (1999) creates the distinction between the simple act of tagging one’s name on the wall and the more evolved and complex artform. George Gonos et al (1976) identify another form of graffiti as usually sexual messages written on the walls of toilets. Despite the large variety of graphics that can be classified under the banner of graffiti, this paper will only discuss urban graffiti. Urban graffiti has its roots in stylised names by writers who wanted to appropriate part of the city for their own (Bowen, 1999). Graffiti then became a form of territorialism, especially prevalent among the youth possessing low socioeconomic status (Bowen, 1999). This is one form of graffiti, one that is transgressive because it forcibly imprints itself onto the public urban territory and also onto territory that has previously been claimed by another writer. This type of graffiti is often mistakenly associated with gangs, who also produce another form of transgressive graffiti. However, some graffiti are made by writers who have less self‐centred agendas. Bowen (1999) has identified a group of writers in Montreal whose reason for creating graffiti was to beautify their neighbourhood and their way to express their art in a way that does not need to be transgressive. Most of these artists that she has identified have background tertiary education in art and had meaning to what they were doing besides establishing territory. Richard Lachmann (1988) identifies yet another type of writers who also use graffiti as a medium of expression, but who need that transgressive component to make it meaningful. These demonstrate that even urban graffiti exist in different forms, have different motives behind them and therefore cannot be defined under a single label.
CHU SIN CHUNG Adrian 332874 Urban Design Theory ABPL90017 Research Essay Tuesday 16.15‐17.45, Asia Centre G01 Elek Pafka One of the major criticisms of graffiti is that they destroy public and private property and are considered illegal (Whitehead, 2004). This is legitimate in the sense that the owners of the walls or the occupants of the spaces created by these walls might not necessarily agree with the intervention of the writers. As mentioned previously, some writers do not take into consideration anything other than what Lachmann (1988) describes as the ‘production of fame’. This is where graffiti become vandalism, that it graffiti that are undesirable. There are indeed many different social problems associated with graffiti – despite the destruction of both public and private property, graffiti writing that is transgressive by nature generates or encourages certain types of behaviour – for example, some of the writers deliberately steal paint, not because they can’t afford it (even some of those given money by patrons participate in this practice) but because stealing and evading capture is part of their writing process (Lachmann, 1988). In terms of gang activity graffiti are not directly related to crime in the sense that writers are usually not directly involved in criminal activity such as fights. They only receive gang protection in return for their services (Lachmann, 1988). The life of taggers is usually short lived, with the Kings (writers considered the best in a particular area) often being displaced quite easily. Writers employed by gangs are often previous Kings who see in their employment an opportunity to continue their graffiti. Being King is a very transient status with no prospect of further achievement, so gang employment can be very appealing since this is an acknowledgement of talent and fame. There also exist many forms of non‐transgressive graffiti. By non‐transgressive I do not necessarily mean legal, but rather a form of graffiti that does not need to break the law to assume its meaning. Many of the Montreal writers that Bowen was discussing had very strong arguments about the right of expression and the right to beautify the city as valid reasons for breaking the law (Bowen, 1999). Even among those writers who consider graffiti as an artform, there is a certain level of inconsistency as to how this art should exist – some feel that the gallery culture is “superficial and elitist”, while others believe that graffiti can only be considered art by society when placed in art galleries (Bowen, 1999) – the latter do not consider that the original quintessence of the graffiti is compromised if legalised, and many often seek permission from building owners prior to making their graffiti. As to whether society views graffiti as art, Belton (2001) suggests that graffiti become acceptable until embraced by the art world. The move from plain graffiti to art can also be identified in the 1990s where sophistication and new writing techniques led to a new form of graffiti know as Post‐Graffiti, or Street Art (Whitehead, 2004). There therefore already exists a certain form of tolerance and 2
CHU SIN CHUNG Adrian 332874 Urban Design Theory ABPL90017 Research Essay Tuesday 16.15‐17.45, Asia Centre G01 Elek Pafka acceptance to certain types of graffiti, but the question is whether completely legalising graffiti writing will further improve acceptance, and what the effect of this legalisation will have on the more transgressive graffiti forms. Determining who has the actual authority to legalise graffiti is yet another can of worms. It is legitimate that the owners of the surfaces being written on have their say in that, but in terms of the institutional legalisation, the people in command might not necessarily be the ones best placed to make the judgement. In the case of Melbourne, it is the Melbourne City Council that has the authority over graffiti. The council considers street art as “larger, more artistic pieces” that contribute to a “vibrant urban culture” (Melbourne City Council, 2013). The city council is very tolerant towards graffiti and does allow graffiti if they add to the cultural capital of the area (Melbourne City Council, 2013). They provide graffiti permits and even approve, under request, certain works that have not been done legally if they meet the council’s guidelines. Such tolerance, however, is meaningless for those writers who are transgressive, since being legal will not prevent them from writing. There is another angle to this however – it can be argued that the potency of certain forms of graffiti is lost if legalised. Terrance Stocker (1972) and George Gonos (1976) both claim that graffiti need to react against something, even if within the law. Gonos (1976) observed that social acceptance is inversely proportional to the frequency of graffiti; he uses the example of the word ‘nigger’ ‐ tagging this word only has meaning because it is stigmatised by society. Stocker confirms this inverse relation between incidence and social acceptance, and although he focuses his research mainly on toilet graffiti, this can apply on larger scales. The implications for urban graffiti are that their creation or meaning sometimes need that layer of transgression. Let us look at the example of gang graffiti. As mentioned previously, gangs employ the service of Kings and these Kings usually stop writing after they are deposed unless they obtain gang patronage. Gangs use graffiti as tools for defending territory – not only tagging the name of the gang but actually using elaborate artpieces as territorial markers. David Ley (1974) makes a distinction between “establishing territory to guarantee security, and maintaining and embellishing it to guarantee status”. It is therefore paramount for gangs to produce elaborate art works. In fact, the Kings in their employment are often referred to as muralists (Lachmann, 1988) owing to the level of complexity and sophistications in their graffiti that demarks them from taggers. Gang activity is for the major part illegal, and gang members will not, for obvious reasons, seek permission to graffiti. While gang graffiti can potentially be very elaborate and add to the cultural capital of a place, making graffiti legal 3
CHU SIN CHUNG Adrian 332874 Urban Design Theory ABPL90017 Research Essay Tuesday 16.15‐17.45, Asia Centre G01 Elek Pafka removes the ability of gangs to use this medium – extrapolating from Stocker’s argument, there is no point legally tagging since there is no forcible appropriation and defence of territory – if gangs can no longer use graffiti, it might recommend to suspicion that many muralists will stop writing. While tolerance and protection can be considered on the same side of the argument, their implication may potentially be very different. Tolerance suggests a degree of illegality, but where the laws are not too rigidly applied. While tolerating, even embracing graffiti on the level of elaborate murals seems natural, it is also important to not actively suppress graffiti culture at the lower end (more derelict areas, social housing estates) because it is one activity that many youngsters feel passionate about. Lachmann (1988) found that many young writers are recruited and taught by more experienced taggers and this establishes a form of brotherhood. Ley describes this as a form of institution where “hierarchical roles can be enacted”. These young taggers are even often allowed to drop out of school for a few weeks to complete tagging projects (Lachmann, 1988). While what they do can sometimes be mildly criminal, focusing on graffiti can distract them from potentially more dangerous criminal activities. Protection on the other hand is at the opposite extreme. Protection suggests the complete institutionalisation of graffiti into the art world. While there is a school of thoughts that claims that graffiti is only art if placed in a gallery (Bowen, 1999) this can be quite contradictory since graffiti as street art by definition happen on the street and need to be read in conjunction with the street context. Protection removes this context – streets are transient, subject to change and decay – protecting graffiti freezes the streets in time and adds an over‐deterministic dimension to the city that does not allow for the production of new street art. Cities frozen in time can’t exist since they then become utopias (Rowe, 1979). Bodies of authority and society do recognise the importance of graffiti to urban culture. The above analysis has allowed us to better understand the motives of writers, but has also shown that the rationales of these writers can be different, even opposite. It is unlikely that a single solution will suit everyone – completely legalising graffiti will enable institutionalised artists to express their work more easily but might result in some forms of graffiti to lose their potency, and encourage undesirable graffiti that do not possess sufficient quality to be labelled street art. Completely eradicating graffiti will stifle the production of potentially meaningful art pieces and this will result in a loss to the cultural urban capital. Unapproved graffiti should remain illegal and not be protected; not because they are undesirable but because their production is often accompanied by seedier practices, hence the socio‐ political issue regarding the legalisation of same. Moreover, the requirement for transgression 4
CHU SIN CHUNG Adrian 332874 Urban Design Theory ABPL90017 Research Essay Tuesday 16.15‐17.45, Asia Centre G01 Elek Pafka demands that unapproved graffiti remain illegal. Transgressive graffiti are rhizomic, and keeping them illegal will not prevent them from existing; it is a simple matter of tolerance and ‘looking the other way’ if a piece of transgressive graffiti adds to the cultural capital. As to gallery artists, there are many other possible avenues (seeking permissions, applying for permits) for them to express their art. In conclusion quality graffiti and murals are desirable, and the way to maintain this quality standard is by contradictorily exerting some forms of prohibition, by councils and owners, that will drive certain artists, while simultaneously being easily by‐passable by others.
CHU SIN CHUNG Adrian 332874 Urban Design Theory ABPL90017 Research Essay Tuesday 16.15‐17.45, Asia Centre G01 Elek Pafka References 1. Bowen, T. 1999. Graffiti Art: A Contemporary Study of Toronto Artists. Studies in Art Education. Vol. 41, No. 1 (Autumn, 1999), pp. 22‐29. 2. Belton, V. 2001. Racism, Gender, Ethnicity and Aesthetics in the Art of Graffiti. Retrieved from: http://www.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/2001/4/01.04.01.x.html. 3. City of Melbourne, 2013. Street Art [Online] Available at: http://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/ForResidents/StreetCleaningandGraffiti/GraffitiStreetArt/ Pages/Whatisstreetart.aspx th [Accessed 30 May 2013] 4. Gonos, G. et al. 1976. Anonymous Expression: A Structural View of Graffiti. The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 89, No. 351 (Jan. – Mar., 1976), pp. 40‐48. 5. Lachmann, R. 1988. Graffiti as Career and Ideology. American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 94, No. 2 (Sep., 1988), pp. 229‐250. 6. Ley, D. and Cybriwsky, R. 1974. Urban Graffiti as Territorial Markers. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. Vol. 64, No. 4 (Dec., 1974), pp. 491‐505. 7. Rowe, C. and Koetter, F. 1979. Collage City. Cambridge: The MIT Press. 8. Stocker, T. et al. 1972. Social Analysis of Graffiti. The Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 85, No. 338 (Oct. – Dec., 1972), pp. 356 – 366. 9. Whitehead, J. 2004. Graffiti: The Use of the Familiar. Art Education. Vol. 57, No. 6 (Nov., 2004), pp. 25‐32.