Fight graffiti with graffiti
There is one aspect of Harrell’s plan that some local graffiti writers think makes sense: enlisting graffiti artists to do more murals. The City’s Office of Arts and Culture hopes to do this through Spatial Justice Through Street Arts, a $300,000 grant program that will pay “community-based” arts organizations to work with — and pay — youth to create “street art.” create, according to the city.
Selected organizations and more details will be announced later this month, but Harrell said he hopes to provide artists with “canvases” such as highway walls and buildings. “Rather [than] someone who has to do it at 4 a.m., I’d rather give them time, some resources to do it on their own time to beautify the city,” Harrell said.
Translation: The idea is to use graffiti art to fight graffiti, or as Harrell puts it, to redirect graffiti writers’ energy “into something positive”. This approach has become more popular in several U.S. cities in recent years, and many advocates, including graffiti artists, say it’s more effective at reducing tagging than reducing it. But this continues the main debate: Who decides what is beautification and what is vandalism?
“So ‘Street art is OK, but graffiti is not OK’ is the message I receive,” says Sneke One, who regularly does commissioned graffiti-style work but feels conflicted about the city’s art plan. “[Harrell] is kind of a gatekeeper in the community.”
That said, Sneke One said that more elaborate artwork could be a deterrent to the kind of labels that the wider public tends to dislike. Case in point: A graffiti-style mural he painted with the owner’s permission in Little Saigon — a billowing red dragon supported by yellow “wild-style” lettering on the south wall of the Khang Hoa Dong supermarket — remained largely untouched by markers for three years.
“It got respect from the street, and nobody touched it,” Sneke said. However, the mural was painted over in February last year amid the launch of A “hot spot” policing approach in response to corner crime. Now Sneke said he sees the wall being constantly polished – also by the mayor as part of a photo shoot during his One Seattle Day of Service in May – and marked and polished again.
“That’s what I always teach the kids: Do you want to fight with graffiti? You have to fight it with graffiti – and you have to do it with better graffiti,” said Sire One. “And then it will handle 80% of the problems.”
A good example is a painting he recently made with nine other writers on the side of an empty building in Fremont. At least 100 feet wide, the Star Wars-themed wall features larger painted elements such as a stormtrooper helmet and Darth Vader, spaceship, “freestyle” lettering and a detailed depiction of Yoda wielding a lightsaber. The crew did not get permission from the property owner, but worked in daylight over several weeks. Sire One said the business owner hasn’t complained, and he hasn’t seen any tags on it since they painted it in October.
This is not always the case. Murals are still tagged. It often depends on whether tags respect the artist in question. A slick mural that looks like an advertising agency designed it might be flagged, while an intricate graffiti-style mural or detailed artwork might be a less likely target. But there are no guarantees. Belltown artist Ferderer (whose mural was tagged by EAGER) says he’s noticed that murals that have been around for a few years might get tagged too — that’s just the life cycle of urban art.
For a subset of graffiti writers, the fact that graffiti is unwelcome (and illegal) is the attraction and the thrill. They simply don’t want to go mainstream, to sell out.