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Thursday, December 31, 2009

This morning on my ride to work I noticed some fine young gentlemen volunteering their time to wash graffiti from the walls of our city. What a fine service to the community? What’s that? You don’t think they’re volunteering at all? Fine young criminals serving court ordered community service? Maybe you’re right. But if we let taggers wash the tags off, doesn’t that just mean we’re showing them clean surfaces to come back to tag later?

Further to my previous post withdrawing my fatwā on all taggers, I’d like to take a quick look at the role of punishment in the cycle of this publish art form. I assume the vast majority of taggers are pop culturists (i.e. not true anarchists, not hippies, not communists). They may not consider tagging a crime, much as normals don’t consider billboards and street advertising a crime. And they certainly rely on “rule of law” whilst driving or working, just like you and me. For taggers or any public guerrilla artist, the legal context in which they do their work is integral to the honesty of the work. Indeed every public artist is asking for “judgement”. But from whom? And why?

For most taggers the judgement most coveted is that of the peer group. But that judgement lies within the wider pool of community/society. In effect, the approval of the peer group relies on the inherited disapproval of the parent group of wider society. Within public art there is a special dispensation for stuff put up with permission “legal :A graffiti piece or production that is made with permission. “ Pretty intuitive.

But it’s important to consider how this word is considered within the audience of graffiti artists. It’s a complicated relationship and has little in common with what the general public would understand.

Speaking of the general public, we, the law abiding citizens, obviously have the majority voice. And interestingly, we, the public, are the targets of all public art. That there is “legal” public art is great. But the judges of “legal” public art are usually art critics. Neither their praise nor scorn carries a jail sentence. And importantly legal public art is judged piece by piece, as opposed to as a group. Illegal public art is pre-judged, wholesale. Any non-sanctioned public art carries the threat of punishment more real than what the art critics are allowed to mete out. As I mentioned before, this threat is actually incorporated in the positive judgment of the peer group. It’s almost necessary.

But I’m interested in the idea that public art is so seldom “attractive” to the wider public that it becomes punishable by law. Part of this idea is definitely a furfy (i.e. tagging isn’t illegal because it’s ugly, it’s illegal because it’s done without permission), but there is another part of the idea that says; if public art were generally attractive, would we see a trend towards softer laws? If the conversation of public artist became concerned with quality of image, composition, arty-ness, etc., could public artists win over the general public to a point of approval? Self-governance of the sort we see in the art world at large (debatable)? And what prevents that from happening?

It’s interesting to consider the ideas of peer review (as in science), and the market (as in art) in relation to illegal public art. There is no market in illegal public art. There is no market because the property is not allocated for the art. The art has no vehicle to market. It’s essentially two dimensional and unowned. Without a path to market, none of the levers of the market can be worked on illegal public artists. Thereby the general public (as participants in the market) have little influence on illegal public art outside the legal system (cops and courts). As a quick aside, were we to endorse public art and provide the creatives the space to declare their identity and ability in public, we might could give them a path to market (i.e. make graphic artists out of them or whatever). This would both discharge the “criminality=credibility” dynamic and allow application of market forces to public art. I think this would lift the art by way of more widely public competition. It would possibly also kill the art because the peer review dynamic effectively dies.

But all of this is merely a screen upon which shadows of the meaning of the art are projected. The meaning of illegal public art is almost always tied to groups outside of the “wider public”. And, I don’t have numbers on this, but I believe the majority of the art is committed by single young males. The art constitutes an attempt at a conversation. If you accept my assumptions, the response to this attempt is so clearly wrong. We normalize the criminal justice system, we do the opposite of affirming value in youth, we criminalize the victims of a culture which finds “them” outside the group “general public”.

As I started to think about why these kids were washing tags off walls I thought it’d be interesting to think of the consequences of law (punishment) as a form of art criticism. But after thinking about it while, it became a bit more involved and that idea seemed too simple, too dismissive.

Read more about graff here:

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