Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Towards Solutions For The Graffiti "Problem"

facepaste montage
I am a poet, composer, photographer, and sound artist (among other things). I spend my time thinking about problems of knowledge, being, and action in the world. I investigate these through research and then create artefacts based on these ideas. In all this, it is a requirement that I am aware of my own context in society -- hence politics. But I am uninterested in party politics or simplistic answers to complex problems.

In all this, I am similar to many street artists today. Though I am not a visual artist myself, I have great empathy for those who choose a creative path. Furthermore, I believe that the only robust societal solutions arise from a process of communication, compromise, and empathy.

Thus, when I write about "solving" a problem, my purpose is not to dictate, but instead to suggest how the process might start. In this particular case, the dialogue is at such a rudimentary stage that any advance in thinking is beneficial. So it really is very easy to provide some starting points.

1. Establish clear and useful terminology. It is possible for "graffiti" to be used in an inclusive sense, to encompass both crude tagging and complex works of visual creativity, hence "graffiti art". Unfortunately the media uses "graffiti" only in the negative sense of property damage and vandalism. To avoid these connotations, those of us who want to leave space for the positive should use a different term, say "street art".

2. Be fair and open in representing people. It is a truism that journalists are fixated on the negative. Certainly this is true in the articles I surveyed for my last post. Journalists should take responsibility for how they represent their community and stop stigmatizing those who tag or create street art. No dialogue can possibly occur while one party spends all their time insulting another.

3. Get some perspective on the law. A victimless crime is not the same as a crime that hurts someone. Though it may indeed be a crime to paint someone else's property, equating this with much more violent anti-societal acts only downplays the seriousness of those other crimes. The law is there to serve society, not the other way around.

4. Understand the plurality of motivations. All graffiti or street art is not created for the same reason. Some artists might be frustrated. Others might be building community (their own community, not one imposed on them). Some taggers enjoy the thrill of breaking the law. Still others might have aesthetics as their over-riding concern. Simplistic solutions will not address all of these cases.

Summer Girl
5. Understand the physical context. Not every surface is the same; not every neighbourhood is the same. While most people might agree that street signs and active store-fronts are inappropriate places for tags, it is harder to justify persecuting those who decorate abandoned properties. Locations that are symptomatic of urban decay might actually be improved by street art. Yet politicians and the press are making no distinctions between these contexts.

6. Develop street art as a positive activity. Workshops, exhibitions, and all manner of positive promotion can turn street art into a resource for communities. Find the best artists and promote them instead of condemning them. Help make Limerick a more creative place!

There have been good steps in this direction in the past, so why is the current dialogue so stale and negative? Politicians offer designated areas for graffiti while, in the same breath, condemn all graffiti artists as criminals. These sorts of patronising attitudes fool no-one.

As I said at the outset, I am not a street artist, though I have photographed some at work and admire the talents and dedication that go into their activities. And I too call Limerick my home. Perhaps my insider/outsider perspective can be of some use. Any real "solutions" will grow from an organic process. Let's at least start that process, OK?

bubble beetle
This article is illustrated with some of the street art I have enjoyed in Ireland. My Flickr stream has a lot more, and also examples from the UK, Spain, Slovenia, Canada, etc. While artworks in other cities survive, sometimes for years, all of the examples I've found in Limerick are erased as quickly as possible. This is symptomatic of a deep-seated denial of what culture is or can be.

I will keep documenting vital works as I find them.


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