I live in a major, pretty-much post industrial Midwestern city. A few years back the City was a massive collage of graffiti: some of it was a collection of simple tags, some of it was just flat-out amazing art. I was always somewhat disappointed that the graffiti did not contain more political content but eventually concluded that the lack of political content was itself political commentary. The graffiti seemed appropriate to the massive abandonment which occurred in the City during 50 years of industrial decline and suburban flight.
A new mayoral team rose to power in the City and they got to work tearing down abandoned buildings and washing the graffiti, or painting over it, or whatever they do. Now, graffiti goes up, and it very quickly disappears. Graffiti artists were arrested, I presume some went to jail, and the effort to prevent and eliminate graffiti became a very serious effort. I have felt very uncomfortable with the removal of graffiti and I questioned why I should have this feeling. Afterall, I am the guy who endlessly defended the City in the wake of the City’s 1967 uprising. Shouldn’t I be thrilled that an Administration came to power with the management skills and willpower to address the issue of urban “blight”? But this gnawing feeling remained that there was something wrong with the removal of the graffiti.
I concluded that there were a number of reasons for this discomfort. The first reason was purely selfish. I missed photographing it. Driving around the City in my beat-up work vans and pick-ups trucks on very grey days looking for powerful images to photograph had become an important part of my life. I missed that.
The other reasons for my regret at the disappearance of the graffiti, however, have deeper content. We are bombarded with corporate graffiti on billboards, corporate towers, and store fronts: none of which is appealing, yet there is very little squabble over the validity of this visual pollution. Cigarettes, booze, lavish lifestyles, all invades our minds though corporate advertisement; this is seemingly Ok because it’s going to make a private sector actor a few bucks. It’s privately owned property and the owners of this property should, within regulatory limits, be able to present to us the images they choose, regardless of whether many of us find these images to be attractive. Graffiti, on the other hand, in effect, treats private property like communal property. This, undoubtedly, violates the capitalist ethos: the same ethos which destroyed the City in the first place. Some of us, however, are offended by the corporate takeover of our value systems achieved through the endless promotion of needless consumption through image and text in the public space. Some of us prefer the graffiti; it is the expression of our urban youth.
Removal of the graffiti is like disapprovingly removing your child’s artwork from the refrigerator door. It is stating to the young person engaged in this artcraft that their creative expression is unworthy, that it is only worthy if appropriately channeled into sanitized, corporatized images which will make somebody some money–yet another rejection from the powers that be. Graffiti removal is an effort to discipline, to create conformity, to the very system which has failed them.
Furthermore, graffiti removal masks the underlying issues which remain in the City: the high rates of poverty, unemployment, underemployment, low wages, and despair . The graffiti cried-out, it screamed at us that something was out of order in the City. But now we have killed the messenger: the graffiti artist, and when one drives through the City, it doesn’t seem so bad, but it is bad, just less evident.
And is there not a freedom of speech issue here? Why is it only those entities or individuals with money, or those who own private property, get to use our urban landscape to express their views. Why shouldn’t those without resources, those who actually live in the City, or who also have close ties to the City, be able to reach a mass audience through the visual display of their creative impulses on our urban canvas?
The removal of graffiti states many things about our state of being. Ultimately, it represents another takeover by the corporate sector and this, undoubtedly, is the thing which most inspires my great discomfort.