Wednesday, June 06, 2007

COLUMN: Graffiti

I love controversy. Well, at least the kind that doesn't directly involve me. But the best controversies that occur are the ones that are, at their core, completely pointless. I'm blessed to have an occupation that offers me a ringside seat to some of these scenarios.

It goes something like this: The media finds a hotbed topic. The media reports on said hotbed topic. Comments pour into the newspaper's message boards from people spitting such vitriolic nonsense that you'd think their entire lives were riding on the outcome. And then, if we're especially lucky, knee-jerk reaction editorials start appearing. Next thing you know, we're in a full-on state of higgeldy-piggeldy. And I just get to sit there in amazement and shake my head at the whole spectacle. Hey, there's worse ways to spend time.

A couple weeks ago, we ran a story that the city of Davenport, having shelled out a million bucks to create a downtown skate park, was shocked and dismayed to discover that kids using the park had vandalized the place from one side to the other in graffiti.

Gasp. Skaters and graffiti. I know, who'd'a thunk it?

Folks, building a skate park and being shocked that kids are tagging it with graffiti is tantamount to building a drive-in movie theatre and being shocked that kids are going there to make out in their cars. Tagging walls with graffiti is as much a part of skate culture as ice cream is to cherry pie. If you're going to cater to skaters, you need to cater to the graffiti they'll produce. It is, in the grand scheme of things, no big deal.

And here's where I give credit to Davenport officials. Rather than spend thousands more taxpayer dollars to constantly police the park for graffiti (which would mean not just clean-up, but also park fencing, regulating the hours, and installing cameras,) Davenport leaders instead brought up the idea of "managed graffiti." The idea here is to basically let the kids tag away to their heart's content while monitoring and cleaning up any offensive or gang-related graffiti.

This is a smart idea. Sad, then, that some people aren't buying into it.

Last week, we ran a guest column in our papers from former Davenport mayor Phil Yerington. This column is NOT an attack on Mr. Yerington. I know he's no stranger to controversy himself, but I kinda like the guy. Agree with him or no, Mayor Yerington made for some colorful TV back in his reign during the big flood. And hey, he even made a cameo appearance as a cop in the classic low-budget movie "Whiteboyz," and heck, from an entertainment columnist's perspective, that's pretty cool.

Odd, then, that a guy willing to participate in a movie glamorizing Midwestern hip-hop culture would write a rather harsh reactionary column assailing the spread of graffiti, an integral part of hip-hop culture. The term "hip-hop," in fact, was coined to signify the unification of urban dancers, rappers, DJ's, and graffiti artists into one massive zeitgeist.

Yerington, though, doesn't appear to grasp the cultural signifigance of graffiti art. He seems to think it's vandalism, pure and simple, and shouldn't be tolerated.

I'm not saying that graffiti ISN'T vandalism. The point of this column isn't to defend breaking the law. If you tag a wall that you don't have permission to, you SHOULD be subject to the law. I'm not condoning illegal graffiti or telling you to let kids spray paint up your neighborhood.

My concern, though, is the inference in Mr. Yerington's column that most urban graffiti is little more than thinly disguised turf markings and war cries for local thugs and gang members. With all due respect to the former mayor, this is a painfully naive and short-sighted way of looking at one of the most exciting and flourishing art forms of this generation.

Sure, gangs DO use graffiti as a way of marking turf and airing beefs. Police those tags, clean them up, and punish the offenders. But most serious graffiti art isn't being made by gang members -- it's being crafted by talented kids with an artistic flair and a rebellious streak for self-expression that you simply can't teach in an art class.

If graffiti is little more than vandalism, why are there art magazines devoted to the appreciation of it? Why are graffiti art exhibits endorsed by the Smithsonian? Why are historians constantly excited by the ancient graffiti found in the ruins of Pompeii?

Whether you like it or not, graffiti will always be around, from bland tags to full wall murals that are days in the making. It's a vibrant snapshot of the urban counter-culture. Sure, some of it's bound to be offensive and unwanted -- and when that happens, we clean it up. If you hate finding graffiti in your neighborhood, why not give the kids somewhere to LEGALLY show off their talents? Give them the managed freedom of the skate park.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i so wish i could find some kid to come do some kick ass graffiti is my attic! I live in Rock island!