A thin line between vandalism and art: the graffiti controversy

CultureMap Houston recently reported on Houston’s new Graffiti Mobile and a photo opportunity featuring the truck and Houston Mayor Annise Parker. The story describes the event and contains a few key quotes from Mayor Parker which I would like to address:

“I have mixed emotions about being here,” Mayor Annise Parker told the crowd. “This is a great new graffiti truck and we are going to do wonderful things with it. The bad news is that we have to do it at all… As we get more aggressive, they [graffiti artists] seem to get wilier and find new places to put graffiti.”


“This is a feel-good event,” Parker said, “but since the media is here, I think we need to make a really strong point: Graffiti is a crime. We spend tens of thousands — in fact, I think it’s about a million dollars a year cleaning up graffiti. Those are your tax dollars we’re spending.”

A previous story on Culturemap Houston takes a different tack and features an interview with well-known urban artist GONZO247 of Aerosol Warfare. These quotes in particular stand out (from Carolyn Casey, the education program director for Aerosol Warfare):

“Awhile back, they [City Council] had a meeting open to the public, and they specifically invited all the art people and us because they said they wanted to discuss the graffiti problem,” Casey says. “We thought they were being open to an idea of ours, but they really just called us all there to tell us to tell our friends to stop doing it. They weren’t open to new ideas, and said that as long as they’re spending money on abatement, they’re not going to spend any money on programs.

“But the city’s going to continue spending money on abatement if they don’t have a real solution for it. We see vandalism as different from art, and they consider them to be one.”

I think it’s rather cowardly and pathetic on the part of our city’s government to blur the lines between vandalism and art. There is a huge difference; the most obvious component of the difference between the two is the consent of the owner of the property being “decorated.” If the owner approves, it’s art; if the owner has not consented, it’s more than likely vandalism. I would usually define most lower forms of graffiti such as “tagging” as vandalism. In fact “tagging” is usually what comes to mind when most people think of graffiti. I believe this is a shame as there is a huge difference between legitimate street art and marking one’s “turf” with spray paint. The latter is more directly compared to the behavior of animals who urinate to mark their territory. Unfortunately, spray paint is more visibly noxious and permanent, as well as more difficult to clean up.

I do not support vandalism. I support art, and more importantly I support public awareness of the differences between vandalism and art. If the government of the City of Houston cannot understand the difference between the two, I believe they have failed us all.

Treading anything but lightly

I just happened to notice this one fly by on my Twitter feed. I’m glad I was paying attention.

KSL-TV in Utah reports on probably the most morally bankrupt case of graffiti-based vandalism I have ever run across. It appears some bored vandal has painted graffiti at several locations on the scenic red rock along this portion of State Highway 128 (highlighted in blue).

I’m an admirer of nature, and somewhat of an environmentalist. I’m disgusted and horrified that someone would even think of tastelessly vandalizing nature in such a fashion. Defacing man-made structures with graffiti is bad enough, but this steps way over any sane line of decency.

Here’s hoping for a speedy arrest and conviction of the scum that defiled nature in the name of short-lived press coverage, and a maximum sentence as a deterrent to anyone else who would dare attempt a similar stunt.

(Note: this does not mean I’m against the graffiti “style” of artwork, as long as it’s not done as vandalism. My tastes in art are quite diverse, but as seen in the video, this is simple juvenile “tagging” and is way out of place where it was done.)

From the story:

[A law enforcement ranger with the Bureau of Land Management, Jason] Moore says last weekend vandals scarred the famous red rock by spray painting symbols and words probably only they know the meaning of.

“Numerous symbols, the words: ‘komy kyenta 2010,'” Moore says.
The BLM is offering a $1,000 reward for any information leading to an arrest. If you have information, call 801-539-4001.

The story of the stray apostrophes

I can see this one happening in the US, too.

The Daily Mail reports on a well-meaning resident of a street called St. John’s Close, off of St. John’s Road, near St. John’s Church. The residents insist upon naming it St. Johns Close–without the apostrophe.

Stefan Gatward objected quite vocally to the motion of Birmingham’s council to eschew the apostrophes for “simplicity.” And then Stefan got some black paint, and painted the apostrophes onto the signs missing them, in error according to him.

In return for his grammatical corrections, Stefan gets branded a “vandal” and a “graffiti artist.” Stefan was also told the Post Office would not deliver to the street if you put in an apostrophe, a claim I personally have difficulty believing and which sounds outrageous on its face. But then again, this is the UK we’re talking about.

My take: consistency wins over simplicity any day. If simplicity is really that desirable, why not get rid of the “s” and call it simply St. John Close while you’re at it? That would make everyone happy, I’d think.