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Graffiti-lando: Can we make it work?

April 2, 2014


Earlier this month we shared a 14-slide photo gallery highlighting some graffiti in the Mills 50 Main Street District. It’s an area that has had plenty of tagging activity – what some would call vandalism – over the years.  Property owners were of course incensed at the damage to private property and the conversation online quickly turned heated. Some pro-graffiti advocates lashed out at the Weekly (and at me, specifically) for writing something that they felt called them out. It was a surprisingly divisive posting, and I was caught off guard by the strong feelings it elicited in so many people. It got me thinking.

Anthropologically speaking, graffiti has been around since someone smushed their paint-splattered hand onto a cave wall. There’s something in the lizard part of our brains that drives us to leave a mark on places we’ve been or places we live. Writing your name on your elementary school desk during math class, carving your initials into a tree or even taking a Krink marker and scrawling your tag onto an electric box. People like to leave their mark. Graffiti happens.

I started my artist journey by picking up a can of spray-paint with some friends and writing my name on a freight train back in Canada. Was it a masterpiece of modern art? Hell no, but it gave me the confidence I needed to start showing my art to people – and maybe even charge them for it. The change came when I realized that painting on private property was hurting people. So I stopped. Now I just put chairs at bus stops and call it a day.

The most seductive part of graffiti is the lack of barriers for artists to show their work, for free, to large numbers of people. The prevalent feeling is that if you bomb enough buildings and get good enough at your craft, you can make a name for yourself and even pay some bills. It’s almost like you’re carving out a place in your community with a spray can. As someone said when they posted on our Facebook wall, “It all starts with a tag. Tags lead to throw-ups, and throw-ups lead to murals.” People like Shepard Fairey have even managed to attain some celebrity from their work.

Art is a way for people to express themselves. We get that, but I believe graffiti is an expression of repression. People resort to illegal means of expression because they believe the legal forms don’t, or won’t, include them. If you don’t have a portfolio, you can’t get into any good galleries. If you want to sell at a group show, you have to give a hefty percentage of your sale to the gallery owner. But for a lot of people, graffiti seems a little bit more authentic and real than the art that gets put in frames and sold indoors. It’s very bootstrap-American in the sense that you start from nothing, work hard and build yourself up. The problem comes when it harms other people and destroys property. Nobody’s going to be won over by your work if they’re getting fined by the city for not painting over your piece fast enough. The city isn’t going to be on your side if they’re getting complaints from tax-paying business owners because you wrote your name in purple on their shop door.

So, what now? Some advocate tougher measures against tagging. More police keeping an eye out for taggers, tougher sentences or – as was suggested on the Facebook thread – calls for violence.

Other people suggest legitimizing the practice by providing a series of “permission walls” where artists can hone their skills. Places like 5Pointz in Queens, or Hosier Lane in Melbourne, Australia provide areas that are free to the public and full of graffiti. People who want to put their work up usually have to go through a curator or central contact and abide by certain rules – like no profanity, or nudity – but it seems like a really democratic process. Murals are allocated a certain amount of space and exhibition time based on the quality and durability of the work, then eventually painted over to free space for new pieces. It may not be as thrilling as climbing onto a rooftop at 3 a.m., but it gives people more time to do more detailed work – work that hopefully means less tagging of local businesses. If you don’t believe me, check out the ever-changing series on the wall of Pho 88. Permission walls trigger mixed reactions though. Some officials argue they can ease vandalism by giving the painters a place for their creativity while others say the spray-paint murals lead to one-upmanship and nuisance graffiti nearby.

When approached – angrily – by a local graffiti artist, I was accused of being part of the problem by slandering them with the aforementioned photo gallery. So rather than point fingers, I tried to listen. The result is the first in hopefully a series of permission walls being set up around town in cooperation with local Main Street districts like Mills 50 and Ivanhoe Village. Thanks to the help of Joanne Grant, executive director of Mills 50 the first wall is now located at Pho Hoa on Colonial Drive, which was a recent victim of some graffiti vandalism. The shop owners have opened their arms to local taggers to come work with them on beautifying their business during the day, rather than defacing it under the cover of night. Check out the photos below

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So, what do you think? Will these walls help? Can graffiti, which at its core an illicit act, be something we can embrace and work for the benefit of community?

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  • Meems

    The phrase “bomb enough buildings to get good at your craft”. Not very pleasant imagery, do you think?

  • JigglyBits

    “Bomb” is a part of the graffiti lexicon. There are headlines about kids bombing the Brooklyn Bridge. Marc Ecko has a list about sending Swag Bombs. There is a book called “Bomb the Suburbs”.

    I don’t think you are being a jerk. Just closed minded.

  • Meems

    The average reader won’t know that. I’m an artist, an art school grad, and I’ve never heard it, surprisingly enough. That’s why I pointed it out. :

  • JigglyBits

    I’m an internet user. I have google. I’m 4.

  • Meems

    So, you’re dumb enough to google the phrase “bomb buildings”, instead of assuming it to be a writer, I don’t know, being creative and thinking of interesting ways to write an article? Oh I forgot, this is Orlando Weekly. I shouldn’t have to google a phrase while reading an article, to make sure it is some slang talk and not a writer being creative. I guess I should always assume it is slang when reading OW.

  • JigglyBits

    Do you realize how incredibly awful you look yelling at a 4 year old?

    If the author used a word like cuntescending when talking about you, I could take some context clues, much like I did with the bomb reference. However, I don’t have a stick shoved up my ass that prevents me from learning further. So, usually, when I read something that causes some sort of emotion (like this article did to you) I dive a bit deeper.

    Even at the tender age of 4, I know that a word, or group of words, shouldn’t been enough to scrunch up my panties and shove them tightly up between my cheeks.

    I am also a bit of an etymology geek, so, if I see a turn of a phrase that shocks, amuses, or wows me, I look it up.

    Gosh, that bring back memories. A couple of years ago when I first started preschool, Ms. Mulligan (she had some great teeters) answer our questions with “Well, did you look it up?” She wanted us to embrace the technological wonder that is the internet. She wanted us to learn for ourselves. And then she wanted us to share the information. She abhorred knowledge hoarders.

    What was I saying? Oh, yeah. When I see a phrase that is a little out of the ordinary, I look it up and usually end up in a rabbit hole of a bunch of new information. Being 4, I am in my prime learning zone.

    I think you are upset because, first, you were sooooooo shocked by a turn of a phrase, and someone pointed out that it was a little silly to be that shocked. Then, someone pointed out that you were closed minded. For an “artist” being closed minded is probably worst than being called a Nazi. I mean, any one can paint, right, but … wait… I’ll stop before making the connection between you and Hiltler. That would be something a 3 year old would do and I am way too mature for that.

  • Meems

    If this article was written to convince people who don’t need convincing, then using language like that with no explanation would be acceptable. If the writer is catering to his audience, what is the point? The title posed a question, why pose a question like this to the average OW reader, who is going to agree that art needs more representation in Florida? We need to be pulling people in who normally WOULDN’T read this, and would disagree, to convince them otherwise. The article is persuasive, it posed a question that was obviously rhetoric to the normal reader base, and even related a sentimental story of the writer’s own experiences. It could have easily been written to both pander to the regular audience, but bring in who we want to see it… THAT is why I stopped reading. Explain the language, because contextually, it is very strong, and the people who shut out art, they read it that way. You’re too busy looking at it with your own point of view, and not those of the readers we want… which is kind of important to do. Since you’re being a cunt, though, and since my first reply to you, you have been a cunt, I will let you go fingerpaint, because we could have had a conversation if you weren’t too busy acting like a 4 year old and name-calling. What are you, 20?

  • sean

    I highly doubt the walls will help. People that go out and bomb do it for the thrill. Its an adrenalin rush. Bombing on its own is its own craft. Nothing like legally painting a wall. This is a war against people trying to get up and get recognized. Tax payers pay to have the city come and buff the stuff out. For what? The same person or persons will cone right back and throw something else up. Its a freedom of expression. To these writers, a legal wall just takes the fun out of it. Then you gotta worry about all the people that will want to do it. Its a limited space. Peoples work getting dissed and just starting problems. Graffiti is going to be around forever. No matter how many times the stuff gets buffed or how harsh the punishment gets. Right now its pretty much about territory and crews beefing with each other. It will always be that way. So what’s the solution? No one knows, because the bombers will always be out bombing wile you’re sleeping regardless of what other people say.

  • JigglyBits

    You read worse than my table mate. But, in her defense, she is only five and her parents do not read to her very often. Listening to her read Green Eggs and Ham is like listening to a drum circle. It just drones on and on with simplistic rhythm and no real heart or soul.

    I am four.

    I stopped reading your comment after you used such a filthy word. I figured that, using that word was your way of telling me that you lack self control, linguistic skill, or a thought process higher than a third grader.

    Seriously… “If” is such a horrible thing to say.

    And, you are the one that started name calling. I was using clever use of metaphors and similes.

    As in: Meems is a hateful tree of discontent.
    or Meems tries to slaughter children like she was Freddy Kruger.

    I have one last question before I let you spin out of control:
    Are the only times you type stuff to the internet when you are being mean and hateful?

  • Meems

    Oh, I’m sorry, didn’t you say something like “cuntacular” after first meeting me with snarky sarcasm saying you were a 4 year old who was smarter than me? Bye now.

  • JigglyBits

    I said cuntescending. If you took that as a personal attack, you have bigger issues than a lack of sense of humor and a lack of a basic understanding of the English language.

    And, are you ducking out of the conversation because you don’t want to answer my question, or are you trying to cover up that you didn’t fully understand the question? Don’t worry, it happens all the time.

    Now, back to the article.

    Picture a gated area with a few 10×10 (or whatever) sections. You sign up and get a printable ticket.

    The competition starts at 9:05PM and the gate is locked and closed. Your job as an artist is to get in there, use your ticket to claim one of the panels. Then you set up and paint.

    At whatever time, 10:00PM, whatever, everyone drops their paint cans and steps back. If you keep painting, you are disqualified and someone comes by with a paint cannon and Tom Sawyer’s your wall.

    Set up video cameras, live webcam it, ads on the side.

    Not quite as much of a thrill as breaking the law, but still a little exciting juice.

  • Meems

    I’m ducking out because I really don’t give a shit about your conversation, and because I have a job where I already get treated like shit by people who just think they are so clever they can be insulting and claim not to be, when clearly they are. Reading between the lines aside, you can’t even give your real name, tits. You’re just so clever! You must be proud of yourself. The rest of us write you off as young and way too confident. As you get older, you know what battles are worth the energy, and when people are just too busy sucking themselves off to pay much attention to. So… Have a nice day.

  • Kaleida


    This initiative isn’t a way to STOP tagging/bombing…it’s a way to allow ACTUAL artists the opportunity to display their beautiful artwork. There is no gurantee that somebody won’t come through and completely destroy somebody elses work.- and if “vandalists” come back and throw something else up- it will be covered again, again, and again.

    There’s no need to be worried about all the people that want to participate in the walls because it’s called Revolving Art. By participating, the artwork will be consistently switched out/painted over by another artist…weekly/monthly. There is a process, not just random people coming in, and the location of the walls will display the artists’ level of experience from amateur to pro.

    If making a wall legal takes the fun out of it- why don’t you ask the artists who have participated in it already. Go to the participating locations and see what beautiful work they have already created and judge for yourself.

  • hope

    Actually pleased to see this. This gives me hope because now I know where to go get permission. Spray paint itself is not bad. It’s the user’s intention for it. This would be very helpful for those seeking to paint and not ashamed to ask permission about it. :] It would separate them from vandals because they’re making the difference and paving the way for a peaceful treaty. This may encourage some vandals to see graffiti in a different light but for some, who knows? There are those that may still respond apathetically and do as they please. Vandalism may look artistically great but forcing it without any approval just creates drama and erases any hope for future artists/writers that genuinely want to paint. Hoping to see more walls available when it’s my turn.