Monday, September 27, 2010

As graffiti mainstreams, will government create processes to sanction permission?

I've been advocating for quite a while on Grits that government begin to identify blank, under-utilized portions of the city landscape - underpasses, concrete drainage areas, even the backside of street signs - and allow street art there on a permission-based basis. Private property owners who wanted to commission free murals on outward-facing walls as a prophylactic against graffiti could also participate. Ideally, in this writer's opinion, the practice should be widespread, with available 'canvases' across every city and content only limited by obscenity laws and disallowing hate speech and known criminal street gang references.

We're beginning to see such a model develop in other countries, as in Brisbane, Australia where local officials are creating a database of commissioned street art so it won't be buffed along with illegal tags. By the time that city develops criteria and processes for getting street art on the list, they'll be halfway to implementing a version of the idea I'm suggesting, Necessity as always being the Mother of Invention.

A prototypical Texan example of this idea may now be found under I-30 in the Deep Ellum District in Dallas, perhaps suggesting a tentative model and certainly some great publicity for the idea of invited graff in public spaces. Called the Deep Ellum Pillar Park, according to the Pegasus News Wire,
The objective of this project is to add artwork to 30 of the TxDOT highway columns under I-75 along Good Latimer Expressway, Canton Street, and Commerce Street. The mural images on the columns will be 11 feet high and will represent the unique work of local mural artists. All of the proposed mural images are free from representations of hate, sex, and violence. The artwork will incorporate images that display the musical, industrial, historical, artistic, and futuristic elements of Deep Ellum, as well as a special mural by the Dallas Police Department painted by a Dallas Police Officer. ...
The artists are: Frank Campagna, Tyson Summers, Dan Colcer (ed note: whose art is depicted upper left), Judith Lea Perkins, Clint Scism, Issac Davies, Jerod Davies, Richard Ross, Jose Sparks Ramirez, Amber Campagna, and Dallas Police Officer Cat Lafitte.
A charity, the Deep Ellum Foundation, sponsored the project, and since TXDOT approved it they must have worked out some mechanism for granting such permission: This is welcome news, and I hope they do it much more often. The Dallas News picked up the story because of the last contributor listed above, Police Officer Cat Lafitte, who received this glowing profile in the paper. Laffiite said she requested and was given permission to join the artists selected to put murals on pylons, wrote Nancy Visser at the News, because though she is only 31:
she longs for the 1950s, when the nostalgic public image of law enforcement was the friendly neighborhood patrol officer. It's different now, she said. People spit or glare when she and her partner pass in a patrol car.

So when Lafitte spotted artists painting pillars under the freeway at Deep Ellum, she asked for her own pillar to paint the portrait of a police officer with the message "Dallas Police Department Welcomes You to Deep Ellum."

"I know the law-abiding people don't hate us, but just dealing with the criminal element, we get a lot of hate," she said. "If I could plant one little seed in someone's head that the police are the good guys, I would consider myself to be successful in this deal."

Lafitte, who was an art/science major in college, intends her artwork to be a positive gesture but plans to cover it with an anti-graffiti clear coat to make it easier to wash off any vandalism. She hopes that won't be necessary.

Motorists passing through the intersection at Good-Latimer Expressway and Canton Street, where she was working last week, honked and gave her the thumbs-up.
The Fraternal Order of Police paid for most of the materials for the mural, which includes the advice, "Hug your Mama cuz I guarantee you were a turd when you were 2." According to the News, "Lafitte's request to paint was approved by her supervisors pending review of the final image. The painting is complete except for the words 'Dallas Police Department' and any detail that identifies the person as a Dallas officer." (Photos of Cat Lafitte's art from Jim Mahoney of the Dallas News.)

In a weird way, graff writers' interests are slowly but surely improved whenever the art form is embraced by official (or corporate) messengers or politically-correct messages, and not only because positive press and possibly even official police approval for the project could encourage TXDOT administrators and others to follow suit. It's part of a slow but steady trend of street art pushing its way into the mainstream in ways that even the most powerful politicians must acknowledge, even as they bad-mouth tagging in general.

A good example was jingoistic graffiti painted on the side of a California highway: The Governator himself wound up apologizing when it was buffed by state highway crews. Two days later, Grits mentioned at the time, two men "repainted the flag and released their names to the press. Bizarrely, the news report I read said that the flag's repainting proved 'that good, old-fashioned American ingenuity and the can-do spirit are not dead.' Of course, isn't the same true of every tagger who revisits a crime scene after authorities buff it?" But bottom line, if the state is going to allow art with pro-government and pro-police messages, the First Amendment will arguably, ultimately require them to allow images with an array of messages. Once the allure of the medium becomes mainstreamed, changes in the laws governing it cannot be far behind.

These days, internationally known artists who began their careers (and made their names) illegally writing on walls are now celebrated in prominent museums and galleries. Cities are hiring artists to decorate areas with street art that elsewhere was put up illegally. What's more, America's over-reliance on the automobile and the need for urban utility infrastructure and drainage control has left us with thousands of gray concrete walls across the nation just begging some one to paint them. And all the while we're wasting officers' time tracking down a handful of the most prolific taggers, at least some of whom might be diverted to permitted venues if they include good, high-visibility locations and the incentive that their work won't be soon buffed out of existence (Rapid cleanup is a much more effective deterrent than arrests, which in practice occur so infrequently they don't provide meaningful incentive, no matter how harsh the punishment.)

On my recent trip in Europe, some of the street art we saw was of exceptionally high quality, particularly in Barcelona and Berlin, while we also saw plenty of more workaday tags. Some street art is excellent, more frequently it's mediocre or poor; just like not every singer is Jackie Evancho, every tagger isn't Banksy. Indeed, Officer Lafitte's aphorisms (see below) aren't exactly high-end philosophy. OTOH, what's so great about a gray concrete pillar?


Anonymous said...

I go to the Dollar store to get the supplies I need to meet my artistic impulses. I know that not everyone has the same taste and not everyone wants to see my drawings. I don't force them to.

When I play music in my car I keep the windows rolled up and run the A/C - this is Texas after all. Some folks keep their windows rolled down and force others to hear the loud obscene hate filled rants coming out of their radios. Whether its 105 degrees outside or 32 they will endure the pain in order to rub their interest in your face.

Its the same principle and represents the same type of personality. These thugs force us to see or hear things whether we want to or not.

Anonymous said...

Advocating spray painting "even the backside of street signs" - your best idea yet.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

5:29, you shouldn't refer to Officer Laffite as a "thug" just because she wants others to see her message. She's an officer of the law.

6:53, it's not my idea. Just look around you every day at the places that already get tagged. Some of them, particularly on private property, are a bigger deal than others. It's not hard to identify spots where the world wouldn't end if taggers could paint it with permission.

sunray's wench said...

Graffiti on private property is wrong, but graffiti on public property (ie anything that is funded by public taxes, like road pillars) is simply the "owner" expressing themselves. A bit of colour or poetry on an otherwise empty grey space is honestly not going to kill anyone is it? It's not going to rot their teeth or make them go out and rob a grocery store. There are more important things to whine about I think.

Anonymous said...

Yes! Yes! Vandalize public property!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

It's already being vandalized. The question is what is the most effective approach to reducing it. Perhaps you need to re-read the post, 11:20, and pay careful attention to the portions that discuss "permission."

Anonymous said...

Thanks for showing the one side of my pillar with writing and not the other 3 sides with art. And yes, the pholosophy I listed is folk sayings and Dr Seuss, I figured Heidegger would go over most people's heads. I think the unused surfaces in the urban landscape should be filled with art, professional or amateur, we would be a better society for it. But it should only be done with permission. For those of you who think it's ok to deface other people's property, let me know what you drive so I can spray paint your car. Same thing right?
-Officer Cat

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Actually, Officer Cat, another pic in this post shows you with your art, so stop your whining. If you're not proud of what you wrote you shouldn't have put it up there.

Your motives are the same as artists who paint highway pillars without permission, of course, but as a cop you received special treatment. Get off your high horse.

Anonymous said...

I'm not on a high horse, I had to fight for that pillar and I resent the implication that I got special treatment for a government agenda. I began that project with the best of intentions and saw it through to the end and it was like pulling teeth every step of the way. I spent 2 full days painting trees with the other artists and another 3 painting my pillar. In the heat. The FOP covered most of the supplies, but I still spent my own money as well. I wanted to show people that the police are a helpful presence to have in a community-not the enemy. Regular citizens have no clue what we see every day and all the horrible stuff that we work to keep them sheltered from. People are worse now than they used to be, which makes us have to be worse to deal with them. It's a vicious cycle and I would like for it to stop. I'm glad to see you enjoying your first ammendment rights, but it's the government and the police that make it possible for you. I challenge you to do a ride-along with your local police. Not on a week day when things are slow (although I just got in a foot chase, anything's possible) but on the evening of a Friday or Saturday when they're running to shootings, cuttings, bar fights, family violence, etc.
-Officer Cat

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Boo hoo. What a whiner you are!

And you are totally on your high horse, clearly full of self righteousness and moral indignation that someone might dare critique your work. Get over yourself. You're not the first person to spend time painting in the sun. And if you've got so many complaints about your job, who made you apply for it, or stay? You chose your profession; stop bellyaching about it, for heaven's sake.

As for special treatment: Going by the press coverage, you saw others painting pillars who'd gone through a process to get permission. Rather than go through the same process and wait your turn, you pulled strings ("fighting," in your words) and because you're a cop and your message was pro-government, you got to paint a pillar, too. What's more, nobody else got the kind of publicity you did nor had a union pay for their supplies. That's the definition of special treatment, even if you can't see it.

Anonymous said...

Well gee, Grits I sure am glad you're using this forum as a 'place to discuss ideas in all their nuance'. You've clearly got your mind made up and nothing I can say will change that.
The word 'spokesblog' isn't in Webster's but I'm going to petition that the definition include the terms 'terminally opinionated' and 'as closed off to the truth of things as a frog's ass is to water' and you try to deny it but that's exactly what this is. Literary masturbation. I bid you farewell!
- Officer Cat