Thursday, August 25, 2011

Thank Heavens for Little Vandals! (or "TAG! You're it!")

My blog has been leaning a bit heavy to the legal side of graffiti over the past few weeks, so I thought it must be time to talk about those bits of graff that seem to inspire ire in some folks. If you are anything like me, You have probably had to have this conversation:

Them: You like graffiti?
Me: Yes. What do you think about it?
Them: Well...I like the colorful stuff. You know....the murals. I don't like vandalism though. Senseless tagging....
Me: what do you mean?
Them: Well, colorful murals, those are nice. But those stupid tags....
Me: I like tags
Them: Well you would probably change your tune if they spray painted all over your house.

Actually, when they tag my campus office door (on papers on my door, to be exact) I take it as a HUGE compliment. And they never write on any other office doors in the department. Also, it might be important to note that this tagging has not signaled a general decline in the overall quality of life in the Department of Criminology. Nobody has noticed an increase in Broken Windows either....

It's the kind of impossible debate about taste or style, really: You want to call down Nickleback to a hardcore fan, you may hear something like this: "Yeah, well they make more money than you!" Meh.... Probably. Conrad Black had a lot of money at one time too. What's your point?

Strange is the reasons WHY people claim to not like tagging.

Let's set aside the "It is illegal" argument, because let's face it: we can all admit to doing minor things that are illegal (jaywalking, speeding, creative accounting, not recycling according to your municipal by laws, cell phone in car, nookie out doors....). How much harm is truly caused by 'tagging' tends to be described in costs associated with expensive graffiti management policy, or other vague ideas.

I want to talk about this argument: "tagging is just so 'senseless'."

What I understand from this statement is that there is a lack of understanding why some citizens choose to 'tag' the city scape. I cannot give you the answer here for everyone who has ever tagged. But, maybe I can provoke a more critical discussion towards a better understanding about tagging.

Have you ever counted all the advertisements or bylaw ordinances (some call this official graffiti) you see on your way through town in a single day? A former student of mine counted "do not do" signs on buses one day. She was flabbergasted as she told the class: "There were seventeen signs on a SINGLE bus telling me to 'move to the back'. SEVENTEEN!"

The advertisements alone that we are bombarded with each day are practically countless. I agree with  Charlie Todd, founder of Improv Everywhere, who argues in this documentary by Banksy: "If advertisers can have their way with us and can pollute our eyeballs all over the city, then so can the comedians and artists." (Antics Roadshow, 2011). I am empathetic to the desire to draw attention to the 'visual litter' of advertising that assaults me as I walk in my city.

Furthermore, North American advertisers have been teaching generations of people that to have your 'brand' up all over the place, in as many creative ways as you can, is a good thing.  Is the lure to be famous among people who respect what you do REALLY so hard to fathom?

The interesting thing that graffiti writers do is that they give you a nic-name or symbol that represents a real human being, not a corporation. Maybe YOU don't know who Daser,  Orek or Sake are, but there is a huge community of people out there who do (see my tags & travelling post here).

While the individual reasons why people tag a mailbox or bus stop differ the marks they leave behind can be as artistic (or more so, if anyone asked my opinion) than any advertisement. Citizens who tag utility boxes and the like challenge the consumer societies ideas of who has a 'right' to 'write' in public spaces. It's also a sign that says "hey, I was here", not unlike Killroy or Gaius & Aulus in the days of Pompeii.

Remember: we are talking about markers on a mailbox in most instances, not murder, not violence. And the folks writing on the walls are not a part of 'street gangs' like you might find in some areas of the world. Canada hosts a much different - a nicely unique - graffiti scene.

And so, it seemed so poetic to stumble upon across the Ottawa Hydro Transformation Station on Slater (above).  I watched people moving about their day after it appeared and this is what I saw: The woman on the bike taking pictures was smiling. The people walking past her were smiling at her while she admired the new piece. When she left, the graffiti was either unnoticed by most, or made people (wait for it) SMILE.

And this is my final point: There is a playfulness going on here that we rarely experience in our concrete public spaces. Graffiti tags remind us that the city need not belong to advertisers and the hundreds of "do not do" signs. Young people live here too, and they see this city as more open to public use than private industry does. I just do not have a problem with that.

It seems we have forgotten that people used to play here; I guess I find the fear of being reminded of that more senseless than the reminders themselves.


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