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.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Citizen's Arrest

The Ottawa Citizen ran an opinion article about why people write graffiti in Ottawa.
Funny enough Ken Gray supports mural programs for legal graffiti, and I think his point is more about making Ottawa less concrete like....but his characterization of graffiti writers (and 'family/community values') are a bit outdated, to say the least. 
This is my response in the event it doesn't make the cut (I can ramble on...).

House of PainT 2010
I would like to thank Mr. Gray for his support of mural programs such as Paint it Up. However, I take issue with his assumptions about why some citizens choose to write graffiti. As an independent researcher, I have been studying graffiti (and its management) in our city for the past three years. As such I might have some light to shed on the ‘issue’ of graffiti. I hope you will be so kind as to permit a longer letter for such a task.
In particular, I wish to address two assumptions about graffiti in Ottawa: first, that it is a sign of ‘declining moral values’ and disenfranchised youth; second, that the calls to 311 are an indication that graffiti is an ‘increasing’ problem that requires police action.

First, let's talk nostalgia. In his opinion article Bad Signs (April 6, 2011) Mr. Gray romanticizes 1920s and 30s rural life, mourning the loss of family values and a “kind of tight-knit society” that did not make way for graffiti. Perhaps I need to remind Mr. Gray that this period in Canada’s history was no Norman Rockwell painting. A majority of women could not vote until the 1940s. There were at least 75 residential schools dominating the lives of First Nations people. Canadian families endured the Winnipeg Strike, the Alberta Sterilization Act, and of course the Great Depression. Many Japanese Canadians found life following the 1930s pretty tough too.
This was a time when the state tore apart First Nations families (brutalizing children) in a failed attempt at assimilation. Nearly 5000 children were sterilized by the province of Alberta (backed by The United Farm Women of Alberta) for fear that they would ‘reproduce’ moral flaws.  Many Japanese Canadian families were stripped of their civil liberties and their worldly possessions by the state, and your wife, sister or mom would probably not have the right to vote. 
Family values indeed, but whose?

See also Kris Murray's Blog on Jays & Aber
I suggest that Mr. Gray is disconnected from the ‘youth’ he has attempted to psychoanalyze as suffering “low self-esteem”. He also might want to research the history of graffiti. Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire were rife with the stuff.
After the death of Jennifer Teague, some writers painted a memorial to her. This is hardly a sign of immoral disenfranchised ‘vandals’, in my humble opinion. Many of them sit in my university classes and are among the brightest; many come from loving families (single parent or otherwise); many hold ‘regular jobs’ like you (in fact, some work with you). Yes, some are kids, but not all of them are.  Some writers might feel alienated, some may be poor, but all of them have relationships just like you and me.

To generalize such a complex and vibrant segment of our community as ‘disenfranchised youth’ with ‘low self - esteem’ signals irresponsible journalism, in my opinion. These assumptions feed the myth that ‘bad kids’ are ruining ‘society’. This certainly contradicts the Ottawa Police Services who say that crime in our city (especially property offenses) is down and the living is ‘easy’ (well, in comparison to the 1930s).  
This brings me to my second point. According to the City of Ottawa By-law Services, in 2010 there were almost 75,000 complaints made to the 311 service in total. Of those, over 13,500 complaints were about pets compared to just over 1, 500 for graffiti. Based on these numbers, then, should we consider an eradication program for people’s pets? Of course that would be absurd. If these numbers indicate anything, it is that more people are annoyed at other people’s pets than they are of graffiti.
Perhaps more of us citizens (that includes you local writers too) should call 3-1-1 to complain when the city paints gray or beige over graffiti!  My point is this: not all of us see graffiti as a sign of moral decay; some of us see it as a sign of a vibrant city.
I invite Mr. Gray (and anyone who is reading this) to join me August 6th, 2011 at the House of PaintT. This is an annual celebration of the City’s recognition of the value of freeform public art (find us under the Dunbar Overpass, near Carleton University/Brewer Park). I am confident that after spending the afternoon with us, you will understand that graffiti in Ottawa is NOT a ‘sign’ of declining moral values.  If anything, it is a sign that community still exists among young people, although you may not understand the aesthetics or its importance to many citizens (including me).
Warmest regards,
Deborah Landry, PhD
University of Ottawa
Writers fill the walls for the Community Garden

AN UPDATE: thanks to local photographer and urban arts activist Mike, who sent me an email indicating that the Ottawa Citizen did indeed print a few letters in response to Mr. Gray's opinion article.

Graffiti may be art, but taste is individual
Ottawa Citizen April 9, 2011
Re: Bad signs, April 6. Columnist Ken Gray is confusing vandalism with graffiti. Agreed the line can be blurred, but graffiti, exploding in the '70s along the trainlines of New York, has long left its roots as a cutting edge art movement.
The pioneer days have evolved to its present form with all its permutations. Artists seeking expression borrow from master artists as does the corporate establishment.
Not all working in this form of art suffer from low self-esteem just as all those seeking profit in business are not suffering from want of legitimacy. It is ironic that the headliner image used to draw attention to Gray's opinion is not an example of shoddy work.
The graffiti movement has a kinship to Andy Warhol's Pop Art; a dig at the advertisers vying to own our minds. As people tag and illustrate our outdoor public spaces without the permission of government, they juxtapose the hypocrisy of allowing rampant business advertising without permission of the viewer. A humorous compromise may transpire on the south wall of our new Ottawa Convention Centre -the installation of a large electronic billboard that will alternate art images and business advertising.
That we need permission to adorn public space with artwork was not always the way. A recent YouTube video went viral, depicting supposed typical shoppers in a food court in Welland, Ontario. They broke out in Christmas song, became a full chorus to the utter delight of their unsuspecting audience. Art without permission. The question really is about taste.
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

Find an innovative solution
Ottawa Citizen April 9, 2011
With regard to Ken Gray's column Bad Signs, my first reaction is to wonder -huh? Let's first take a quick step back in time.
Graffiti did not come out of New York in the 1970s. Graffiti has been part of the human experience since Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire. In fact, the earliest forms date back to prehistoric times; the term graffiti defines inscriptions and drawings that were found on ancient ruins such as the catacombs of Rome. More appropriately, modern graffiti is associated with writers who apply graphics to almost any surface that by civil law standards is considered vandalism.
A small handful of writers were thrust into the limelight in the '70s when New York became famous for graffiti both inside and outside its subways. As to graffiti writers suffering from low self-esteem, Gray should take the time to speak with actual writers. He would quickly discover that many are young artists with social and political interests.
Often, I have been inspired by graffiti art, some of it on legal walls, most on semi-legal or illegal walls. I am always struck by the creative use of colour, the thematic content and difficulty of placement. I am a realist at heart. I accept that the eradication of graffiti is not likely ever to be achieved so long as there are young people with creative minds. Limiting or altogether curtailing human expression has never proven to be a viable means of state control. If city governments and police agencies were serious about controlling graffiti, they would take their cue from British military history and co-opt the participation of graffiti writers. Erect legal, accessible walls and locate them in prominent parts of the city.
Gray is naively suggesting that downtown spaces are needed for people to interact and that this would create a more meaningful community. Perhaps his solution is too simplistic for the new realities of modernity -graffiti is clearly here to stay.
Patricia K. McCarthy
© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen