Thursday, August 16, 2007

Paint responsibly: Museum offers hands-on graffiti exhibit

What should kids be taught about graffiti? I've been writing a lot about the legalities of subject recently, so this story caught my eye: The Liberty Science Center, a children's museum in New Jersey, views graffiti as a "cultural asset," reports the Washington Post ("Winner by a nose," Aug. 15, photo via the Liberty Science Center):
I could have easily spent nearly an hour tracing the genesis of the world's written languages if a group of kids writing graffiti on a wall with "digital spray cans" hadn't drawn me away. In one of the museum's boldest moves, graffiti is regarded as a cultural asset of human communication, and the exhibit digitally stores each graffiti tag as part of "Exhibit Commons," a place where visitors can contribute their own works or testimonies as a way to break down curatorial gates and engage the public.

I gave this whole elegant spiel to Gary and Lily Swenson, who were observing the exhibit from afar. They weren't buying it.

"It's teaching them graffiti! It's not a good idea," Gary said.

I pointed out a disclaimer written next to the graffiti wall that read: "Uninvited graffiti is illegal. . . . Please paint responsibly."

Lily rolled her eyes: "That's like saying, 'Drink responsibly.'"

Actually, it's EXACTLY like saying "drink responsibly." And isn't that a good message? We tell people to drink responsibly on the assumption that it's futile to tell them to not drink. Our nation found that out for sure, once and for all, during the Prohibition era. The slogan is a pragmatic compromise: Nothing wrong with that, in my book.

Similarly, society has prohibited graffiti to the point of making it a felony in many instances, yet what American city isn't littered with graffiti tags? (Photo via Dirty Third Streets)

The Liberty museum recognizes that writing on walls with spray paint is something fun that many kids like to do (like picking a giant nose, as it turns out - who'da thought?), so it uses that fact to teach them instead of to punish them.

Where else are kids taught to draw the distinction between invited and "uninvited" graffiti, between fun and vandalism? Who has explained to them the nuances of how free speech and property rights mingle? Who has told them, "it's okay to have fun, it's okay to be happy and do things you enjoy, just enjoy them responsibly" Probably no one, except for the museum's valorous attempt. I think that's an important message that's too often lost:

"Paint responsibly" - after all, what you create is a "cultural asset."

See prior, related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

If these kids are going to tag, why can't they use chalk? It would wash off with water or rain, maybe?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That would certainly fall within the "paint responsibly" theme!

Anonymous said...

oh ok so the next time you two morons put all your hard work and effort into to something that your proud of you want it to just wash away? pait responsibly... yeah im a graff writer but you know what my dad is an officer of HPD, im not in a gang, i dont kill people, do drugs, drink and drive or anything in between, but i have a life and what having it has taugt me is that people of all generations should learn to respect freedom, "oh but we do, but its not the tagers right" dont give me that politicaly correct constitution first ten amendment b*ll sh!! ok, look all that im saying is that if any one is going to make a comment on a topic like this ... f***ing get your facts strait, look up the history of graffiti, walk in our shoes for once or at least ask your self the question... am i wasting my time with all this, i mean should i really worry about this when my kids could be driving and all the sudden get hit by a drunk driver. really people, are you that stupid, graffiti is a crime, but it is an art, and did Vincent Van Gogh have to wash his work off? didnt think so. illeagal surface or not, art is art sence cave men drew on walls. if you really want graffiti artist and and other artist a like to be responsible, start up a permitted wall that is strictly for painting on.