Monday, April 11, 2011

Where the Wild Things Ain't

I was walking through a public fountain area in the west end of Ottawa this past weekend. A place where kids with skateboards get chased from occasionally, I suspect.

Oh "those kids"...

Upon one of these 10 foot tall cement slabs was a spray painted character with what looks to me like the head of Max from "Where the Wild Things Are" and the body of a skeleton.

Oh, and a penis. was probably kids. It was a pretty crudely drawn penis, afterall. Regretfully, I didn't take a picture of the original because I had dismissed it as childish.


My ever thoughtful partner prodded at my photographic oversight:
"You know, that's probably what most people fear about graffiti. You probably shouldn't ignore it on your blog."


The next morning we walked back over to the fountain to discover that our endowed skeletal Max had gone through midnight metamorphosis.

Perhaps the original writer was experiencing 'morning after' regret about the penis; perhaps the writer's friends came back to give Max his clothes; hell, maybe a local resident who appreciates graffiti surmised that this was the most 'humane' way to buff graffiti that faces a public library full of kids.They did not erase the image completely - they modified it.

Regardless of who cloaked Max, the edit illustrates the complexities of everyday life, which is missed when we look at something like graffiti and assume that its the markings of one-dimensional "wild things" .

My first point here is this: the writer (or his/her friends) acknowledge that the penis in this portrait transgresses more than one community. Writers have moral orders about what is 'cool' and 'uncool', just as we all do when we stomp through our everyday jungles of work, home, public transit, bars or coffee shops. Cloaked Max symbolizes connection with other social beings, not alienation.

There is meaning in these writings, although people outside the community don't understand it. Graffiti is not a sign of chaos.

DBS crew with a shout out to daser (pes, mokar, iker, reces, mouse, jesro, venise, cens, among others - feel free to correct my errors or omissions)

This brings me to my second point.

When  'graffiti' is dismissed as 'naughty kids play', the existance of a dynamic and diverse community with a history in this city is dismissed. There is informal schooling about how to do graffiti 'responsibly' in our city already in place BECAUSE there are older writers that the younger ones respect. 

This is also why an eradication approach to graffiti defies logic. It's like trying to eradicate street hockey.

prank, hiero, never
According to Buddha, hip hop graffiti has been in Ottawa since the early 80s. Those 'kids' are now in their 40s...Some have gone on to be successful artists and photographers, social activists. Some still write. Most have families and lead a relatively normal life. There is history on these walls. Eradicating communities with a history rarely turns out well.

Tags and stickers are not a sign of moral decay, they are a sign of urban life, just as street hockey in rural Canadian streets is a sign of small town life. Not all of us like hockey, but far be it from me to tell you that you can't do it any more even though it technically violates some city by-laws.

This fear of imagined feral children is more akin to what Schissel talks about in his book "Blaming Children" (and "Still Blaming Children").

Like Schissel, I don't think its a coincidence that this  'zero tolerance' approach to graffiti is happening in a political climate where our own government has been found to be in Contempt of Parliament, when the Ottawa Police Services are dealing with abuse of power charges (see Stacy Bonds). The city is not  calling for a 'zero tolerance' approach to these kinds of social harms and crimes. Instead they are problems dismissed as a case of a 'few bad apples' or 'just politics'.

I say "let the wild rumpus begin" and let's direct it towards those who have been shown to be truly outrageously disrespectful of our community and its citizens.

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