Thursday, July 23, 2015

#BlackLivesMatter & Graffiti

Tuesday of this week, BlakCollectiv painted the message “Black Lives Matter” on the legal wall on the corner of Bronson and Slater.

Photo Credit: Haley Ritchie/Metro

By the next day, the mural was painted over by local writers. This morning I stopped by to take photos and accusations of “white privilege” now adorn the wall. The press was invited to recount this call and answer, naming sides (as if they were mutually exclusive categories) “activists” vs. “graffiti writers”. They are calling it a "clash" but the bad guys are not being called out yet, which is not surprising given the press typically frame such parties (activists, people of colour, graffiti writers) as bad guys almost exclusively.

I am writing today hopefully to defuse tensions that are unfolding between two groups who are devoted to similar causes, but are under the spotlight right now for a battle that is a bit like Shaoli vs. Wu-Tang. Currently, there seems to be debates over turf and style, questions about who has a right to write there:

Were BlakCollectiv wrong to paint at tech wall? No. Of course not. Its a legal graffiti wall.

Were the local graffiti writers wrong to paint over the #BlackLivesMatter? No. Of course not.
They were responding according to the informal rules of the wall born out of the black tradition of NYC graffiti culture, a point that Adae Baj points out in the Metro article.

Art should bring about discussion...and here we are. I  humbly offer these few observations up as the discussion continues:
1. There is nowhere else in the City of Ottawa that the BlakCollectiv could write this important message in a substantial way without the work being considered vandalism (and you can bet that The City would have painted over this work just as fast if it were elsewhere else). Because there are only two substantial walls in this city where the racialized aesthetic of graffiti is permitted, local graffiti writers are quite protective of these spaces.

2. The only reason why the city has these two walls is because of the work of many young people in our city (of many different racial ethnicity) who have fought and supported the maintenance of these walls. This has been accomplished through 12 years of collective action and is celebrated annually with House of Paint: a huge event devoted to the history and political importance of Urban Arts and Hip Hop. This wall is a space of resistance. There should be more of them in this town.

3. We live in a city that has regulated public space in such a way that the voices of those who live on the margins are silenced. We have bylaws that have ensured that racialized art forms are handled with suspicion, while the wrong person is absurdly celebrated in public art - at taxpayer expense - with no oversight at all. This is worth challenging, and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is worth supporting.

I would ask everyone who has become involved in this drama to consider the party to this conflict who is not being mentioned. The City of Ottawa has left both communities with very little space to speak. The result is a "clash" over scarce resources.

The press will amplify this dispute, and in the end it will serve city counsellors who need votes in the suburbs to argue fallaciously that ‘graffiti writers’ and ‘protesters’ are troublemakers that bring down their property values. Race is always an ideological factor in these claim, a point that Baj hints at when she says that racism is less overt in the US. This drama was created within a political structure that privileges those in power and it will be used to justify further regulation of those who resist it. Nobody wins, except The City of Ottawa and The Press (institutions that are like the “Qing Lord” of this drama).

If I may be so bold as to suggest a way forward: I am confident that a Black Lives Matter mural would be something that House of Paint would be happy to have as part of the festival, done in collaboration with the writers and BlakCollectiv.

I wonder if the press would show up for that story?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mayor Jim Watson: Building (and Painting) Bridges

Its time to give props when it appears that there is a change happening in this city's approach to street art. A bright student of mine e-mailed me an article from The Ottawa Citizen that suggests Mayor Watson wants more murals on the 417 overpasses


To be clear: murals are not the same as graffiti, so this is not exactly what one would call a "loosening" of the 'zero tolerance' approach to graffiti regulation that escalates tensions between citizens unnecessarily (as I have talked about elsewhere on this blog). 

HOWEVER: This is SO GOOD for the city on many fronts:
Consider what urban art (Living Walls) did for Atlanta

First: it is a step towards embracing colour as a possibility in this city. More than just "pretty" though, it challenges that ideology that grey is the colour of safety and security. To 'educate' a citizenship that there is any validity to the unproven premise that markings on a wall communicate "risk"(to the economy or personal safety) is irresponsible. Particularly given we live in the safest city in Canada, with some of the highest housing prices (which brings with it some of the problems we are facing with who get to be able to live downtown...). These things are largely a product of our economic footings: a workforce dedicated in large part to serving government administration, not our grey walls. 

Second: this is an opportunity for the City of Ottawa to court many of the artists who have incredible skills in working with paint and cement. If you truly want to support young artists who WANT to work painting legitimately, then I look forward to hearing about how proposals for these murals will be encouraged. I look forward to hearing about many of the talented street artists I know are applying to paint these spaces. By supporting this initiative, you are fostering a positive environment for artists to flourish. Lets tell our artists we want them to stay in Ottawa...

These are early days, and I am confident there will be hiccups and some 3-1-1 calls from citizens worried about what encouraging art will "tell" kids.

I urge you to stay firm Jim Watson. This is progress, and I for one take this as a positive sign for what lies ahead or this city we both love. Here is my sincere thanks for taking this step. If you, the reader, want to make sure he gets this message and you are on Twitter (I am not), why not tweet this @JimWatsonOttawa

And come on BIAS and local businesses: come join us - we will need some paint to help support this initiative.  If you want to contact me directly to chat about why this will help you, please do! 

Atlanta artist EVEREMAN spoke to me last fall about a series of global installations of his work. 
Wouldn't it be nice if Ottawa was one of them?

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Kill Graffiti

Neither markings pictured above were done with permission; both have been up for a significant amount of time; both  'replicate' (similar images/writing appear elsewhere in the city, although not together). The juxtaposition of images here is not insignificant.  The people who came to this wall  did not interpret the fence as a ' do not go here" signal , instead they accepted the fence as an invitation to continue a conversation about who can shape these public spaces.
Many of you have probably noticed that I have not been updating as regularly as I used to. There are a couple reasons for that, the first of which is a growing commitment to a music project born out of my initial curiosity over the municipal regulation of busking and graffiti.

Another reason is a change in my thinking about my role in 'researching' graffiti.

An epiphany hit me recently when I was in Atlanta, being held captive in a hive of imposing hotels connected by glass elevators and pedways suspended over concrete rivers of abandoned streets flooded with the poorest of the poor swimming upstream. In presenting a paper, "Stop Calling it Graffiti", I realized: writing and singing without permission was never at risk of eradication from legislation. The regulation of such artistic endeavors is largely a symbolic act of voluntary surveillance,  devoted to maintaining the image that the state is able to control those 'vandals' and bands of roaming minstrels. The population it does not control is vast and liquid. 

To be clear, I stand by my  findings that these regimes of power contribute to fostering violent tensions between citizens by maintaining classist and exclusionary schemes of the municipality that attempt to define that which is: creative ; art;  the artists; the vandal.

I remain convinced that the city has an obligation to levy reasonable expenses on citizens to administer public services but it failed to do this by continuing to create 'graffiti strategies'. The City of Ottawa's current administration has inherited an ideological war on graffiti that will continue to escalate in costs. This blog will continue to question how the city 'creates' these costs as a way to justify the continuation of what is essentially a scenario reminiscent of the movie Wag the Dog: an imagined war to garner public opinion. 

You see, graffiti is ideology; it is not a concrete thing, as the image above illustrates so well; graffiti is as illusive of a concept as 'terrorism', and just as affective. It's time to kill the idea that "graffiti" is the problem. Even among those who would call themselves graffiti writers, there is little agreement about the defining characteristics of what makes something 'graffiti'.

I propose that a greater problem is an overall loss of  public spaces, or an overall alienation from the idea that public spaces are those areas which belong to citizens. I propose that it is a problematic that many people live in the shadows of economic fears, supporting the idea that these spaces should be regulated  in the name of private interests, who promise to protect the economic stability of our city. We only need to consider the economic struggles of the Byward Market to understand what happens when you allow a Business Improvement Association to alienate the very people who give a community the 'vibrancy' needed to sell the space (to tourists) as a local gem. Most citizen's everyday living includes art and music: it is not the role of the state to 'educate' us on what is good art and what is not. To do so breeds unnecessary and absurd regulations as well as economic and cultural expenses. 

That being said, I think this blog has stated this all before, backing up these claims with valid sources and empirical evidence. So, its time to start expanding the focus of this blog, for fear of repetition and in the spirit of growth.

Recently, we lost a great scholar: Distinguished Professor Jock Young. He wrote about many important ideas, some of which he chose to leave by the road side in favour of developing others that proved to be theoretically fruitful for his work and his community. In responding to a critic accusing him of changing positions on issues over the course of his long career,  I  heard him respond (and I am paraphrasing here): am I supposed to stick to the same thinking about the world I held when I was in my 20s simply because those ideas were published? The world has changed, and so has my thinking about it.

You will be missed, Jock. 

This blog will continue to devote a great amount of space to that style that many people would recognize as graffiti (because i do love it - the bigger the drip, the better); I will remain a supporter of House of Paint, and those wishing to challenge these strange bylaws of taste; however, the blog will be expanding its reflections to include other aesthetic aspects of public space in Ottawa.

Let me know what you think as time rolls on...

Note: the title of this blog is inspired by this article written by my graffiti-appreciating colleague Jeff Ferrell who offers us a provocative critique about methodological fetishization in contemporary criminology. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Back to School with House of Paint

The dust is barely settling from the House of Paint's 10 year celebration, and the party was inspiring! Before the big celebration, I was invited to chat with CBC Communications Officer Joanne Steventon about graffiti, legal walls and why these spaces are important to our city.

House of Paint from CBC Ottawa on Vimeo.

Thanks Joanne, for taking the time to hear how complex the topic of graffiti is, particularly in Ottawa.
And thanks CBC for providing House of Paint with the much needed support.

Clarification: the video is edited by the CBC so that at one point I am talking about writers from Montreal, but a piece from Cens is featured (a local writer from Ottawa). 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Climb that Wall

House of Paint
Photo Credit: Landry
The wall got a little bit smaller today.

I just got word today that the City of Ottawa and The Ottawa School Board, which hosts one of Ottawa's historic legal walls, have raised concerns about a ladder that writers have kept stored at the Tech Wall for years. They want it disposed of.

The concern being expressed by these two governing bodies, I suspect, are largely based on actuarial type risks; think insurance companies, risk and public space.

I am going to assume the decision to remove the ladder was made without thinking through the consequences of this request. As such, I am making a public plea to both the Board and the City of Ottawa to re-evaluate what it is that they are asking of the citizens who use this park.

Daser Photo Credit: Simon Milligan
First, this action limits writers to working on the lower half of the wall. I am sure local fans of graffiti/urban art will recall the impressive Daser productions that have graced a large portion of the wall over the years. Filling the wall , Daser inspires writers to think big, think complex, think beyond the 'tag'. Where else can artists get practice working on larger scale projects so that maybe someday they will create art for Ottawa akin to what Omen has recently created in Windsor, Ontario, or A'Shop has done for Montreal?

Never, Heiro & Prank
Photo Credit: Sneak @
When a production is not taking up the height, the wall runs like a comic book strip, showcasing two rows of work at any given time. The ladder is relied upon to fill the top strip. The top is usually the last to get filled because it is difficult to run up and down rungs all afternoon. Women who write at the wall typically do so up high, so that their work will run a bit longer  than it would otherwise if it took up a lower section. The fact of the matter is, graffiti is a largely a male dominated activity; it ain't easy making a name for yourself as a writer when you are a woman (although it is certainly not impossible). By taking away the ladder, you are making the wall a little less welcoming space for women writers.

The removal of the ladder demonstrates a lack of understanding of how the writers use the wall, and how important 'up' is to writers. You can take away the ladder, and some will still get 'up'. HOW they will get up, however, will most likely be MORE dangerous than standing on an aging ladder stored behind a fence year round. I've seen some pretty precarious balancing acts in my time at that wall.

If the Board is truly concerned about the safety of the writers, why not offer an annual ladder exchange: out with the old, in with the new: a kind of harm reduction approach to art. I checked Home Depot online, and for about 175$, you can get a pretty sweet ladder. Given the importance of this wall in contributing to the urban landscape of this city, a ladder is a small cost for this liquid year round mural offered up to OC Transit riders for free everyday. You can even put a wee sign on it: "use this sweet ladder at your own risk..."

Authority with a sense of humour is always appreciated.

If none of what I have written sways you, consider this:  making it more difficult for writers to use a space that the city said they could legally use gives writers more reasons to distrust the city, and be cynical about their willingness to work with writers. Writers have contacted me today, expressing understandable frustration :  try to work with the city on their terms, and you lose ground each year, inch by inch.

It's not "just" a ladder.

If you make it more difficult for someone to write at this wall, they will write elsewhere. So, yes, you should fear that they move on to cities like Montreal or Toronto, where they go on to learn how to fill skyscrapers to the delight of tourists and transit users alike.

What a terrible resource to chase out of our town, all over a ladder.

If you are a citizen of Ottawa who feels that there is a better way to assure the Board and City of their concerns over the use of a ladder, why not call 3-1-1 and suggest a more equitable solution than ladder removal.

Crazy Apes Production
 Photo Credit: Sneak