Photo: Simone Gareau / Charlie Poon
By Blair Brennan
“Would I want someone to tag my new expensive fence?” my wife asks. If Banksy or Shepard Fairey happen by, yes (and not for the obvious monetary reasons). If Daft Punk comes by with a can of spray paint, then DP and I will need to talk. —BB
Gig city and the Edmonton Journal recently reported that Edmonton police showed up to confiscate the work of graffiti artist DP (Daft Punk) from an exhibition in the Naess gallery in the Paint Spot art store. By “coincidence” police showed up on the day of the opening and were surprised to find the café set out for an opening reception. I know peace officers are the people that you really want to see when the shit hits the fan (unless you’re the one throwing the shit) but this set up is too much. Isn’t this what cops do best—coffee, donuts and protecting us from ourselves? In this case confiscating, not objectionable material but, art works that could be used as proof of DP’s transgressions on private property.
Graffiti is clearly a problem for the citizens but charging graffiti artists with a criminal act to fix the problem is like putting sex care providers (I think that’s the new culturally sensitive term) in jail to solve the problem of prostitution. The problem is bigger and the blame misdirected. I am not a victim of some naïve utopian delusion. I know that drugs, alcohol, access to education, poverty, programs for at-risk youth and gangs complicate the graffiti scene. However, to my thinking, that makes drugs, alcohol, education, poverty, programs for at-risk youth and gangs the problem, not graffiti.
Social engagement, community ownership and involvement are integral parts of the graffiti issue. People with artistic inclinations who feel involved in their communities do not spray paint gigantic tags on their 80 year old neighbours’ fence because they know that guy and maybe they helped build that fence. They do not put up “objectionable” material because their own children walk and play on those streets (as DP claims). If people feel that it is their city or neighbourhood, not just the place they happen to be living, then ownership in their community is stewardship rather than private property. Stewardship comes with a desire to affect social change. The judicious use of street art may be one a tool for this change but, then it is not graffiti.
The graffiti issue has generated much conversation among friends and associates. One graphic designer friend wants to know who decided that spray paint on the side of a building looks worse than advertising. A weed is any plant, even a rose bush, in the wrong place and so it is with graffiti. Star Wars storm troopers and some other great recent stencil work (Boris Karloff as Frankenstein, yes!) on abandoned, unloved brick and concrete “canvases” = BAD while rented portable signs (you know, the black ones with 6 or 7 lines of yellow, white and florescent orange text) filling up every available grassy median and boulevard = GOOD. As graffiti is often a symptom of political unrest, even its milder forms represent, to many, an unacceptable disruption to the status quo. You don’t have to be a raving Marxist to see that, as a culture, we’re OK with ugly advertising as long as someone is making money.
Paint spot owner Kim Fjordbotten took some risk when she agreed to show DP’s work. She fears that other graffiti artists will choose not to go the legit art gallery route if having work in a gallery exhibition could lead to charges of “mischief causing damage to property”. It seems an odd argument as, for many of us, graffiti IS already legitimate. You will not, however, see many upper middle class white couples pushing big-ass strollers through the rail yard to look at the great new tags on the boxcars. Graffiti is not art to most people merely for the reason that it is not in an art gallery. Many people will prefer the safe, pallid, “graffiti-style” of the Works “gates” but it might be a bigger disruption of the status quo if we enlighten the populace and tell them that some of the city’s best art can be found in rail yards and back alleys.