Jul. 11, 2012 - Issue #873: The Big Cover-Up
The Writing on the Wall
The impasse between street artists and the law points to a necessary discussion
The just-opening exhibit was by street artist DP (short for Daft Punk), and as quick as it had gone up, the exhibit was packed away, computers searched and DP's contract with the gallery taken. The warrant was served to investigate a case against the artist for alleged earlier, outstanding vandalism offenses.
It's a happening that underscores the difficult state of impasse that the street art community finds itself in: although public opinion of the style has improved significantly in the past decade or so to the point where some can consider going the gallery route, the law remains static towards street artists and the cultural rebelliousness of doing art wherever they will. The city of Edmonton has a sizeable anti-graffiti push going for it—Google "wipe out graffiti" and Edmonton's program is link number two—but even in DP's gallery case, it's a damned-if-you-did message to the artists who work in the style: if street artists try to move towards more legal channels for exhibiting their work, those whose early pieces graced street corners and wall space find themselves facing steep fines.
"There are a lot of really good artists who are on the cusp of wanting to come up and having shows and being paid for their art," says Kim Fjordbotten, owner of The Paint Spot. "But [they] can't go mainstream because at some point in life, all these artists did public art that will get fined."
She notes the police officers who seized the art were admiring the works as they packed them up (also, that any of the DP pieces that had already been purchased can be collected from the EPS when they've finished their investigation). For a long time now, the question hasn't been whether or not street art is an artistically valid form of expression: from the obvious cultural torchbearer, Banksy, to lesser-known artists splashing image and text on the walls of public spaces, graffiti art characterizes and defines some cities just as clearly as iconic architecture does. Fjordbotten notes that DP's stencil work has been commissioned by the Old Strathcona Business Association in the past; public acceptance of the art form as an art form is in the midst of enjoying a long crest upwards.
But unsolicited art is still unsolicited, no matter the subjective assessment of its quality, and the bylaws that fine those who pick a public place as their canvas are there with purpose: to try and protect people from what they don't want to have on their property (especially since, as part of those bylaws, owners of graffiti-tagged buildings have to foot the clean-up bill for unwanted public art. They can also be fined if it isn't cleaned up with 14 days, even if they don't actually mind it.) The politics of street art are in a gridlock.
Although street art's evolution as a style has drawn it away from earlier stigmas of attachments to violence and gangs, in some eyes, those connections still linger: the Edmonton Police Service's website, pulling its definition of graffiti from Webster, defines it as "'An inscription, slogan, drawing, etc, scratched, scribbled, or drawn, often crudely, on a wall or other public surface.'" The EPS further frame that definition with, "It will always carry the name of the gang and sometimes the street name or "moniker" of the person who wrote the graffiti. [...] It is not necessary for citizens to be able to decipher the exact meaning of graffiti, but it is important that they recognize it as gang-related and take steps to notify the police."
The implication that graffiti is always tethered to gang culture seems, at best, archaic. Unsolicited street art has its vandal costs, of course, and a certain portion of it is indeed tied to crime, but it's false to imply that every unsanctioned piece of work going up on city walls has such a connection. By pushing the esthetic and quality upwards, the street artists are steering street art away from that. Twitter's become a method of local street artists communicating with fans and each other while preserving anonymity, building positive communities around the form without giving up their identities. And local blog Foundmonton collects and records the locations of street art, not for removal, but to index and share it with wider audiences.
Still, under unflinching laws and limited legitimate alternative opportunities, where do graffiti artists go? How does the art form grow in a city when legitimate options for street artists are limited to a paltry number of freewalls—blank wallspace where artists can do art—and nothing else? The Edmonton Art Council's encouraged the city for more freewall space, but there's just one official graffiti zone (and one unofficial one).
"I would rather see a quirky little art piece than have an ugly, half-painted neglected wall," Fjordbotten states. "Nobody wants those. As a business owner, I'd rather fight against billboards and sandwich boards than rubbing out street art. However, it is a grey area, and law can't deal with grey area. When it becomes a subjective opinion of, 'If it's good art it can stay there, if it's not good take it away', or, 'It's OK to be here, but it can't be there,' the law can't deal with that."
Perhaps in response to that ambiguity, some street artists are finding ways of releasing public art that's just as visible but doesn't leave expensive damage.
Alongside DP's exhibit was a likeminded showcase of the works of The Bandit, whose iconic balaclava-wearing image has likely replaced the Listen Bird as our city's most recognizable regular street image. (His exhibit went untouched by police.)
The Bandit's solution to the gridlock politics of street art has been to create non-permanent works. Pieces that, in some cases, you can take with you: his tools are stickers and wheatpaste and magnets. He doesn't damage property with spray paint, and in an email interview, The Bandit defines the public spaces he chooses as, "The public property that is grey and dirty and sterile. Ugly grey power boxes, giant rusted poles that house corporate advertising that we are forced to be inundated with on a daily basis, and who could forget those ugly grey cement blockades that are everywhere. These things are cold and mean and could use a little warming up, a little art. I believe that people appreciate seeing art on these types of objects. I also believe that it's a public space and that the public shouldn't be forced to look at something that they don't want to. This includes advertising. This is why I stress the non-permanence of my work and use materials like stickers and magnets."
His efforts have increasingly driven a wedge between vandalism and street art: back in the spring, The Bandit organized an easter egg hunt. Announced over Twitter and the Foundmonton blog, more than 100 fist-sized Bandit magnets were hidden along Whyte Ave and the Old Strathcona area, for whomever to find and claim—quite literally found art, finders keepers. And both The Bandit and DP's Paint Spot shows are raising money for the charity Kids with Cancer (after DP's work was seized, other local artists donated works to fill the walls). The emphasis is on a positive contribution to the city.
"This is the kind of community that I'm trying to create. I see myself as the conscious of Edmonton's street art community and I try to lead by example," says The Bandit. "I am confused by the hypocrisy of the City of the Arts having the most grey walls of any metropolis that I have ever seen. I'm trying to engage our city and do street art in a way that is acceptable to our current social and political climate."
Fjordbotten hopes that the exposure to the seizing of DP's art show will lead to an increase in such a discussion. In a statement made after his works were seized, DP emphasized the need to start seriously discussing increasing the number of freewalls in Edmonton. He noted that he's open to discussing paying the fines he owes, and asked the cost of a freewall in hopes of beginning a fundraising campaign.
"By giving freewalls to our community, we are giving artists young and old a place to develop their skills and challenge their imaginations," goes part of the statement. "Murals are a nice gesture, but a freewall is just that, it’s FREE. It evolves, transforms and is constantly maintained by those who use it for free. No buff required, and will even save Capital City Clean Up a few bucks in the end."
Of course, unsolicited art on public and private walls will remain illegal. And even if there was an increase in the number of freewalls, some would still paint on the streets. The Bandit admits to a certain defiance inherent in the idea of street art as being one of the form's draws. But more than ever, the conversation about separating the street art from the vandalism and damage is an important one to have in the city—not just to talk about having these talks, actually having them—with freewalls, the less-permanent methods of artists like The Bandit, and DP's tilt towards gallery showings, pointing to a way to make street art public without the costly cleanup.
"There is rebelliousness inherent in street art," The Bandit says. "That is what makes it so important, so exciting, so engaging. It's expressing yourself and your ideas in a very public and open forum. In certain cases, like the one in our city, it opens up a very powerful dialogue that, in our particular case, I don't think that the powers that be really want to hear. This city is desperately trying to make any kind of artistic expression in the streets look criminal. Through organizations like Capital City Cleanup and by acts like penalizing property owners with unsanctioned art on their walls our city is making it very clear that only the art that they sanction and that they commission has any value to Edmonton's inherent culture and esthetic. That's why I've never broken any laws through my expression. I want to show this city how important street art is to our culture and that it can be done in a conscientious and courteous way. I think that if the art is good that it will speak for itself and that it doesn't necessarily have to break any laws to be important and to seem dangerous. Bandit really is tailormade for the City of Edmonton, the City of Champions, the City of the Arts. Bandit is funny and dangerous and cheeky and adorable all in one breath. Bandit is really trying to speak to this city and show them how viable and beautiful and necessary street art is and can be in our society." vueweekly.com comments: powered by Disqus
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