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Art or vandalism?

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Art or vandalism?

A combination of tagging and bubble-style graffiti spotted outside Ballard Pool. (Piper Sloan)

A combination of tagging and bubble-style graffiti spotted outside Ballard Pool. (Piper Sloan)

A combination of tagging and bubble-style graffiti spotted outside Ballard Pool. (Piper Sloan)

A combination of tagging and bubble-style graffiti spotted outside Ballard Pool. (Piper Sloan)

Piper Sloan, Sports Editor

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A can rattles in the distance, a flick of the wrist and a push of the finger. Paint sprays into the air and suddenly, another artist has added their name to tapestry of their town. Instead of a canvas they use a building, a billboard, a train or a street sign. And just like that an innocent city surface is turned into a crime scene.

Legally, graffiti can be defined as any form of writing or drawing, artistic or otherwise, that has been painted or etched on a surface without the owner’s permission. Hearing this definition, it seems odd that it is associated with such a distinct and specific style of artwork.

The history of graffiti-style artwork goes back to Brewerytown, Philadelphia when a young man with the nickname Cornbread tagged his name all across town in an attempt to gain his crush’s attention.

This initial “tagging” motivated others to tag their own names and nicknames across town, with New York City acting as a popular hotspot. Phase two was introduced in the 1970s in New York City. this phase is known as “softies,” or bubble letters, still a widely recognized style. After that people began to get more creative; tagging not just their names but also adding cartoons, stencil sketches, experimenting with different fonts and as such developed what we now recognize as modern graffiti.

Ian Anderson, sophomore and amateur graffiti artist, believes that the history behind graffiti is significant to gaining a deeper respect for the artform. “It becomes kind of this culture of getting yourself out there and putting yourself up and being somebody else,” Anderson said. “I think a lot of people don’t understand that, and don’t see that”.

Hearing this, one could understand why certain individuals have such a respect and passion for the art form. People who are surrounded by the rich history of graffiti are much more likely to have a deeper appreciation for what it is and what it represents.

To Idris Beauregard director of graffiti management at Seattle Public Utilities, however, this doesn’t seem to be the case; “I grew up in an area where graffiti was just part of the backdrop. I personally think that there are some really nice pieces and murals that are put out there by graffiti artists,” Beauregard said. “But I don’t agree with putting it on city property it’s just inconsiderate and shows a lack of respect for the property”.

The idea of a ‘graffiti backdrop’ brings to mind images of extreme cases of vandalism in which graffiti covers the landscape. In contrast, some places are able to remain clean as a whistle. This phenomenon is largely due to something known as the ‘broken windows theory.’

This theory, originally introduced in 1982 by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling, argues that a landscape or community where vandalism is common, where graffiti and broken windows can be seen in abundance, gives people the idea that crimes such as vandalism will go unnoticed, which in turn leads to more acts of vandalism, which later progresses to more serious crimes, such as theft or home invasions.  

“The logic ties directly into that [the broken windows theory]. When a community is seen as unsightly is then attracted to more crime and disorderly conduct in that area,” Beauregard said. “We as a city have the responsibility to create a safe environment for everyone who lives in that community so we all have to do our part.”

This theory and its applications prompted the development of the Seattle Graffiti Nuisance Ordinance, which is a way to ensure that vandalism is stopped before getting out of control. This ordinance essentially states that it is the property owner’s responsibility to remove graffiti in a timely manner and if they don’t, they may be subject to certain fines.

“We understand that customers are a victim of a crime so we spend considerable amount of time working with the customers, trying to find a resolution prior to taking them to court,” Beauregard said.

When graffiti is done on city property removal responsibility falls in the hands of the graffiti rangers. These rangers have to deal with the outstanding number of graffiti reports on everything from bridges to light posts. Either by painting over, power-washing or using chemical formulas, these rangers are able to remove hundreds of incidents of graffiti, typically within 10 days of the report being issued.

While this constant cycle of painting and removing may seem cumbersome to many, to others the temporary nature of graffiti art is what makes it so appealing. “Graffiti goes away, it’s not going to be somewhere forever, obviously there’s a bunch of people who get rid of it, Anderson says. “And a lot of graffiti writers they understand if they put of a piece on this wall and it’s illegal, it’s gonna go away and that’s just how it works, that’s how the game works I guess”.

From an artistic standpoint, graffiti is simply another form of expression, and its artistic significance cannot be denied. But the fact is that it’s illegal, and any time an artist tags a wall to connect to the rich artistic history, they’re also leaving another mark on the city that has to be cleaned up, and that’s what gives it a bad reputation.

Andy Ryan, Public Relations and Communications for Seattle Public Utilities, gives his final word on the issue.

“The thing that we keep emphasizing is that the difference between art and vandalism, graffiti and vandalism, is permission,” Ryan said.

 

To report graffiti, click here or call (206) 684-7587.

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Art or vandalism?