Tuesday, June 23, 2009

'Permission walls' help bring graffiti art into mainstream

Rex Thomas, a writer out of Florida, has an excellent piece out on the relationship between street art and civic spaces, arguing that failure to bring graffiti into the mainstream postpones "treatment of the urban malaise." I was particularly taken by Thomas' discussion of "permission walls" and his analysis placing graffiti in context with more traditional, accepted art forms:

In Orlando, the trend of giving street artists “permission walls,” or walls where they have permission to paint their work, has tamed some of the sabotage. By allowing graffiti artists to work with permission, they are free to develop their craft without fear of getting caught before completion, and the artwork becomes a colorful, mural-sized effort to which the artists can point with pride. These permission walls encourage friendly competition between teams, or crews, and there is a sense of pride among them for having created something with great exposure.

Two permission walls exist to the east of downtown, but it is the cluster of warehouses at 630 E. Central that showcase graffiti artwork at its best. Artist Robin Van Arsdol owns part of this cluster and has been sponsoring an international graffiti conference for several years, bringing in artists from Europe, the Caribbean, and North America for a weekend of painting at his studios. Driving by his property is a study in converting urban form into art, and perhaps suggests the urban future of more than one city.

For the graffiti artists have offered a philosophical change-up that should not be overlooked. The conversation about postmodern art seemed to have reached a dead end some time ago; artists first threw out figure, then form, then color, then the frame, and then wandered into their process itself as an art form. Graffiti artists begin with the end: their signature, or tag, becomes the art, and by using this as the starting point, and the city as their canvas, they unconsciously offer a new beginning to think about the relationship between art and the city.

We must accept the challenge that graffiti artists offer us; we must confront this takeover of the physical urban form and push back. While street art is a fresh, interesting language, it should not be mistaken for the language of knowledge or power. Instead it is the language of a city that is weak and divided. We must hear what graffiti says to us as a society, and retake our physical urban character as a common, broad place that offers security, sacred, and special places for all citizens, not just the privileged few who, by choice, enter the physical realm. By ignoring graffiti art, we postpone our treatment of the urban malaise. By confronting it and bringing it into the mainstream, we can better treat our urban condition and improve the city as a dwelling place for the benefit of all.
See related Grits posts:
MORE: See examples of permission walls and commissioned graffiti in Austin here and here.

32 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is actually pretty cool. Although I think that some rules should apply regarding words used, or pornography, i think that allowing the artists to express themselves on a pre-determined set of walls is a good idea. If you were to place them, or designate them in a area that is visited, it might actually help to draw in people that would be interested in seeing them, thus expand the local economy with a quasi-tourist trade.

Anonymous said...

Maybe permission girls will help bring rape into the mainstream.

Anonymous said...

Open your eyes people oh I forgot this is Grit's for Breakfast.You people can't see the Gang Sign's

Gritsforbreakfast said...

1:46 - I realize you're trying to be cute (in your own, dull-witted way), but "permission" is precisely the difference between "rape" and legal sex. And sex, of course, is quite mainstream.

4:12 - I'm pretty sure nobody's going to give permission for gang signs on their property. Hard to tell what your point is, or if you have one at all. Here's a hint: Think first, then write.

Anonymous said...

Grits the Gang sign is there your just to dump to see it.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"the Gang sign is there your [sic] just to [sic] dump [sic] to see it."

Two things, 4:44: A) Try not to spell like a 2nd grader if you're going to call others "dumb" (or even "dump"). B) Point out the gang signs in the photo: What gang is it? What is the meaning? Fill us in.

Anonymous said...

Forgive the spelling Grits.Been smoking some Mary Jane.The so call art says "Be Down with the Folk Nation"

Anonymous said...

They paint what is on their mind. Their head is full of gang images and ideas.

Let's mainstream all that. Permissive walls.

Anonymous said...

This is a much better article that has the appropriate outrage we should have towards graffiti.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

5:16 - I just googled Folk Nation images, found a bunch, but none of them even remotely match anything about this piece. What makes you say that's the message? Be specific.

7:31 - while it may make you feel good to call for harsher punishments as in the article you linked, in reality the police catch graff writers FAR too rarely for that to be a significant deterrent. Your preferred approach has been tried - unfortunately, reality intervened. Graff on schools, churches and community centers in Texas, for example, is already a felony on the first offense, and since that law passed the volume of graff in TX cities grew by orders of magnitude.

There is plenty of "outrage" out there, it just doesn't accomplish anything. Why not try a different approach?

Anonymous said...

Grits, so many of the graffiti vandals are bad people in other respects. Even when they are not deterred by stiff laws, why not lock them up for a while? There is a nice incapacitation effect. Get their kind off of the streets and you can decrease the number of assaults, robberies etc.

Sojourner said...

Scott, this is an amazing post. Thank you so much. I love the idea of permission walls. I agree some rules should apply regarding pornography, because of it's affect on how safe women feel within the community, but other that ....

Sojourner said...

I think behind most graffitti, especially that of repeat 'taggers,' is someone young who believes they have no voice. Usually these people are rather artistic. Permission Walls is a great way to engage these people in a constructive way.

The famous artists Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat began with graffitti in Manhattan. Graffitti obviously done by artists, such as Haring or others (i'm thinking in particular of a Manhattan painter that paints silhouettes on ugly walls by vacant lots) actually add to the appeal of some NYC neighborhoods.

We were overjoyed when we saw graffitti very similar to some we saw in Venice, Italy in our hometown of Galveston Island (it stenciling and mottoes, kind of a sendup of political art). Our reaction was - hey, they are some cool artistic people living here.

So there's definitely a good side to it. We should tap into that.

sunray's wench said...

This is an interesting piece that was on our news yesterday:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/bristol/8114184.stm

Apparently, now, Banksy's art is a mural and not the graffitti it had previously been. Possibly because he has taken over the city's museum for 3 months with a huge exhibition that is free for everyone to see (Bristol is known for all it's museums being free and also for being a real cultural centre).

I think it is fascinating that the blue paint is seen as vandalism, and perhaps in 10 years it will also just become part of the mural.

I love Banksy's work. Permission walls are a great idea and they do work over here. Critics tend to be jealous of other's artistic ability.

Anonymous said...

Art smack on GFB. Makes me anxious for the next topic.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:37 - first, I've never argued here or elsewhere against enforcement on illegal tagging (see the links at the end of the post). If you can catch them, punish them. The problem is that enforcement-only approaches haven't worked. Let's face it: Teensagers are more clever than cops and have nothing but time on their hands to figure out how to outsmart them.

I don't actually believe your generalization is necessarily true about graff writers, but to the extent they are "bad people" committing other crimes, they're MUCH more likely to get caught and punished for the other offenses. Focusing enforcement on graff gets very little bang for the buck compared to rapid cleanup or establishing permission walls. And if its' actual criminal street gangs you're worried about, you're more likely to catch them by going after their money making activities.

Anonymous said...

Grits,
Where is your office located? Based on your comments it sounds like you might love to have your walls spray painted?

I once spent a day removing one of your suggestions from brick walls. We are all permissive and all, but golly it gets hot scrubbing brick in Texas. What I was scrubbing didn't look a bit like art to me but I'm not as smart as you are.

Anonymous said...

" Grits, so many of the graffiti vandals are bad people in other respects. Even when they are not deterred by stiff laws, why not lock them up for a while? There is a nice incapacitation effect. Get their kind off of the streets and you can decrease the number of assaults, robberies etc.

6/23/2009 10:37:00 PM"

Ok, can you explain to me exactly what "Their kind" means? You make assumptions regarding everyone with a spray can, and I would really like to know how to spot the truly hardened criminal from the kid that likes to paint art? In your infinite wisdom, please enlighten the rest of us on the factual things we need to search for when spying someone painting graffiti. Do the truly criminal of the group have a neon sign stating "I pimp on Fridays"? Or should we look for the "Reefer -- 2 for a dollar" sign?

I love it when folks bring out the "Their Kind" sort of observations. It tells the rest of us that racial profiling, and rampant generalization of guilt is still alive and well in the USA.

Anonymous said...

I agree, you can't "make assumptions regarding everyone with a spray can."

Usually that young man with his spray can has the best of intentions. This may sound harsh, but I just wish he would spray those who like it and leave my walls alone.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:46 writes: "I once spent a day removing one of your suggestions from brick walls."

You spent the day removing graffiti that was put up with permission? That seems kind of silly, but as you say, maybe you're just not that smart.

9:20 - you've hit on exactly my point. Let's give graff writers space to paint so they won't do it where they shouldn't, and meanwhile ensure rapid cleanup when it's done without permission.

If you can arrest somebody, fine, but that won't make nearly as big a dent in the problem as the other two strategies.

Anonymous said...

Permission walls are fine if they're provide by the private sector. But to have another taxpayer funded program to coddle criminals? No thanks.

Anonymous said...

"can you explain to me exactly what "Their kind" means? You make assumptions regarding everyone with a spray can, and I would really like to know how to spot the truly hardened criminal from the kid that likes to paint art? In your infinite wisdom, please enlighten the rest of us on the factual things we need to search for when spying someone painting graffiti."

6/24/2009 08:46:00 AM

Yes, I will enlighten you. People who can't refrain from vandalism are violating a basic tenant of morality, one that a small child can understand. It's called treating others the way you would want to be treated.

So many of these teens come out of the cesspool of the underclass. Relatives who are ex-cons, no father in their life, neighborhoods filled with men who don't want honest work. It's sad, but they are damaged and a lot of them will need to be locked up.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:40 - would you rather taxpayers pay MANY times more to incarcerate them? The cost-benefit analysis on that approach isn't particularly pro-taxpayer.

10:47 - You make a lot of unsupportable generalizations that don't jibe with facts on the ground. A lot of graff is done by bored middle and upper-middle class kids just in it for kicks or to satisfy a rebellious streak.

There are several distinct classes of graff writers out there. Gangbangers marking turf are the most offensive and also less common in Texas (California, especially LA, is a different matter). Most of the the volume of tagging comes from 2-3 man "crews" who aren't otherwise engaged in criminal activity besides maybe a little pot smoking, curfew violations, or something along those lines. Then there are MANY people who never tag systematically but may write on the wall a time or two and are still subjected to the harsh penalties designed for the gangbangers. 8:46 wanted to know how you would distinguish between those classes of offenders, but you clearly just lump them all together. IMO it's precisely that mental error that's caused our jacked-up anti-graffiti laws to be so ineffective.

Anonymous said...

"Natural Crime Fighting" strategies like permission walls for graffiti art can and do work to help control unauthorized graffiti.

In San Antonio a number of store owners, building owners, property owners, public housing projects have allowed public art or graffiti art to be placed on their walls. The results are quite striking -- these pieces are understood and respected by taggers and others and left to stand without being tagged.

This type of approach can be used with other problem behaviors -- we just have to look at the issues a bit differently and not reach for the punitive approach as our first response.

Anonymous said...

Grits where is this data saying that the middle class is committing most of the graffiti?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:10 asks, "where is this data saying that the middle class is committing most of the graffiti?"

I never said that. I said that most of the volume comes from competing tagging crews who are not affiliated with criminal street gangs. In Austin, for example, police attribute only 15-20% of graffiti to criminal street gangs.

Anonymous said...

"Yes, I will enlighten you. People who can't refrain from vandalism are violating a basic tenant of morality, one that a small child can understand. It's called treating others the way you would want to be treated."

Actually, you just turned out the lights on me. Morality has to do with RELIGION, and from your tone that BANE of religions, Christianity. Other religions have a different view of things. Respect is something earned not taught. Secondly, your overt explanation of ghetto life, fatherless marriage, etc has no distance when talking of this matter.

Many serial murderers ahve come from white middle class families with both mother and father in the house, siblings, the family dog, etc.. SO should I believe that all middle class kids under those situations are gonna be serial murderers? I men if I need to I will, but I think however that a great number of people that choose to murder would have done so with or without such upbringing. The bible, nor fear of father is gonna make someone fly straight that doesn't want to.

Anonymous said...

12:00 Variations of the Golden Rule exist in almost religion. Ayn Rand, an atheist, believed in the non-aggression principle which stated:

"No one may threaten or commit violence ('aggress') against another man's person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence"

So get over it, these graffiti artists are acting like garbage and violating a basic human right. It has nothing to do with a religion, every society has a universal revulsion to these little shits.

Your comments about serial killers, by the way, only shows that few people from the underclass really have the intelligence and fastidiousness to be a serial killer.

Anonymous said...

Free walls, or permission walls, are not a new idea. They have been tried and they absolutely do not work. This article gives the jist of why they fail.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks for that link, 11:21.

My view is not that permission walls are a cure-all. Graffiti can never be completely ended by any single tactic, only managed over time. I see permission walls as part of a three-pronged approach also including enforcement (when possible) and rapid cleanup. The idea being that rapid cleanup of non-permission graffiti plus providing good, visible public spaces will, over time, drive graffiti to the approved spots. The link you give says permission walls don't work by themselves, but the author views them as an either/or option instead of also doing rapid cleanup of uninvited graff (a tactic the author endorses). I believe both tactics are necessary to be effective in the long haul.

Also, I'm not just for one free wall in one part of town. I think there are lots of public spaces where allowing graffiti would do no harm (see this post for details) and satisfy the complaints of taggers that a free wall is just a means of control. The essay you link to claims free walls fail when implemented timidly as an isolated, stand-alone tactic. I think the concept should be implemented more sweepingly and as a part of a broader graffiti management approach that includes the other tactics the article you link to endorses.

I was also interested to see that author acknowledged that "Two categories account for most graffiti in US Communities: (1) street gang graffiti and (2) hip-hop or "tagger" graffiti. Most laymen immediately think of street gangs when they think of graffiti. But in terms of damage and number of incidents, this is a much smaller category than hip-hop."

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Anonymous said...

To the ignorant people who have expressed their uneducated disgust in the comments on this page I beg you to do your research. I am a photo journalist who has studied graffiti in-depth and I can assure you that not only is artistic graffiti not gang related, some of the most world renowned street artists credit their relationship with their art as what kept them out of gangs. I applaud Grits for Breakfast, this is an amazing post.