Wednesday, July 13, 2011

"The Message" and the Merchants

Strange times are approaching for those of you who find yourself in a mall looking for a replacement pair of flip flops. It's July, and the fall 'hard sell' of back to school is upon us. Of course, advertising (and graffiti) are not exclusive to Ottawa, but the use of graffiti in advertising got me thinking about how well advertising firms typically are at reading ideology and managing it.

The Gap, for example, is using graffiti this year to market to boys aged 1-5.

What the Gap is doing here is marketing to parents with the idea of the 1980s and graffiti without incorporating any actual graffiti. Skull shirts on a toddler is just plain ironic, and merging the idea of menace, boys and shopping is presented without much protest in malls across North America. (if you are wondering about the girls, they get sold on the idea of 'modern dance'). It's amazing how The Message has changed since the late 1970s, a time before malls and mass advertising the way we experience it today.

Of course, The Gap is not the first corporation to capitalize on the idea of graffiti to market their goods.

Coke makes train graffiti look like a fun afternoon art project in this little ad that aired in Europe:

Pfizer pulls on your heart strings like a ninja:

[Funny enough, Pfizer is routinely in trouble with the law, being found guilty of felonies such as defrauding patients , medicaid in addition to a whole slew of fatal social harms. Hardly child's play. I digress....]

Graffiti, the idea of it, is CLEARLY a global phenomena.  It is used to sell products to dads and moms who shop at the mall, people who drink coke and use pharmaceuticals. That is a LOT of people. And the message in ALL of these ads is this: It is cool. It is youthful. It is global. It's edgy. Why, mom even overlooked the death defying hanging the son would have had to do to get those flowers up in the alley. I think she meant to mouth "big ups" not "thank you"...

These ads touch on the tensions around defining graffiti. The absence of tags in the children's store window suggests that while the idea of 80s graffiti feels like nostalgic 'fun', there is an edgy element that makes it hard to acknowledge completely. Pfizer is careful to make sure the intent of its graffiti is for a sick sister. The coke video certainly went viral because of the nostalgic fantasy and a PG version of  the thrill of playing with trains (note: wearing your headphones around train tracks is best left in the realm of fantasy).

Advertising firms do some of the best research out there on what ideas 'speak' to the masses. Clearly, graffiti has many meanings for many people, and it is not always a negative sentiment. I am not implying that advertising firms should direct moral order. I am merely pointing out that they do reflect some things that are meaningful to many. It is something to keep in mind when someone claims that 'nobody likes graffiti'. 

Clearly this is not the case. To make an argument based on this while you drink Coke and shop at the Gap is clearly something worth being more reflexive about. 

NOTE: I will be writing almost exclusively over the next month about Ottawa in particular as the events around House of PainT start ramping up. Look it up. Come out and see what's going on. See you around!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Weird Science - The Public Relations of Graffiti Wars

One of the reasons why I started blogging about graffiti was because I was getting frustrated with the abuse of 'research' by city counsellors who promise impossible things like "graffiti eradication" when they run for counsel. Rick Mercer has an excellent rant that sums up my feelings on such things.

Promises of beer in every fountain for those who can't drink;
Promises of graffiti eradication for those who can't think?

It is only recently (relative to the history of the world) that we see definitions of graffiti include such adjectives that imply it is fundamentally 'illicit', 'illegal', or 'unauthorized'. It wasn't until the 1980s that contemporary graffiti (in North America) has been framed as a social problem. It is no coincidence that this is also when society becomes enamoured with the promises of Reagonomics and Tough on Crime agendas (for people who fall through the crack of 'Reaganomics'). In Canada we continue to see huge cuts in social funding, heavy investment in prisons, while our news is more concerned about 'the beer' than 'brains' (Kai Nagata's inspiring blog post about this).

In these times of collapsing economies, politicians like to address minor problems that appear solvable while they are in office. Looks better on the CV.

When you don't know anything about graffiti, it probably looks like it will be easy to eradicate. Yeah, easy like rock and roll eradication, eh! Remember when Elvis "bent the mike toward him and performed a series of slow pelvic thrusts" during Hound Dog, and folks got similar notions?

Nevertheless, the journalists show up and politicians spout anti-graffiti sound bites, like parents still high on a "tough love" boot camp sales pitch for their 14 year old:
"Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has suggested that those who deface freeways with graffiti should have their thumbs cut off on television." Oscar romantically recalls beheading as a method of punishment that 'worked' : his lack history knowlege is as spectacular as a public hanging.  
In Toronto, Rob Ford avoided all the issues except for graffiti: “It just depreciates the value of everyone’s property, it turns it into a ghetto, and that’s not the kind of city I want to represent” (2011). Nice way to racialize graffiti and make poverty sound like a problem we can solve by 'painting it white', Rob!

In Ottawa, Councillor Marianne Wilkinson finds that the act of exclusion is an appropriate rallying cry by sticking graffiti - and writers - in the same category as 'litter':  “It’s wonderful to see individuals, students, families, community groups and businesses joining together with the common goal of keeping our communities litter-free and graffiti-free.” Important to note here that Wilkinson is a counsellor from Kanata, which is suburbia central (not exactly the hot bed of graffiti in our city).

When politicians realize that eradicating a global phenomena like graffiti is probably not a reasonable task for a municipality, they spring into PR mode because it's easier to buy services that make it look like you are doing something than it is to admit you didn't understand the issue before you started talking like you were Napoleon Bonaparte of graffiti. And, the meter starts running...

The City of Edmonton made a big media splash about of their investment in buying the services of a MGM Management to help them in their eradication attempts of graffiti. MGM Management does not specialize in graffiti culture. It is a BC based environmental consulting firm headed by part of the legal team who defended the City of Walkerton.

City counsellors in Edmonton now have a shiny new report and a database to talk about in the media. Then they annoy me most by making ridiculous claims that the report does not even attempt to do (namely, prevention of vandalism and bringing criminal charges against writers):
"Edmonton’s first-ever audit of graffiti signatures, or tags, is helping police and the city prevent vandalism by tracking and charging repeat offenders, says Coun. Amarjeet Sohi."
Police have been taking pictures of graffiti for years. They know you cannot convict someone criminally for 'vandalism' because someone found markings that 'look' like work you may have done by you in the past*. Someone else could have written it, afterall. Sometimes writers also change names and style over time. Some municipalities, however, are beginning to use databases to pursue civil cases.

  Paying private firms for graffiti audits is like hiring Magnum P.I. to count graffiti tags on mailboxes.

Taxpayers need to ask themselves if that is a valid use of public resources, given that this is more about ego than actual public harm? Remember, in the case of Ottawa, more people complain about pets than graffiti (see previous blog post here) . It also points to a shift away from public policing, towards relying on a privatization of policing - where people's property takes priority over public peace (see Stats Can for a broad comparison of these two types of policing).   As for being a tool to measure if graffiti is 'increasing or decreasing': the audit CAN speak about the count of tags in those exact spots if the city pays the company to come re-audit later on (meter running), but that's it. Graffiti moves. When buffing and increased policing targets one location, writers find new spots. The audit is not intended to 'catch vandals' or eradicate graffiti; it's important to note that the report makes no such promises, either.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Oh Canada! Big Ups (and Downs)

My partner and I included a morning visit to the Tech Wall early Canada Day before losing ourselves in the crowd, doing a jig to Great Big Sea, and overpaying for hot dogs and cold beer.

As we pulled up along side the legal wall, we were gobsmacked. Someone had been to the wall the night before, rolling over the stretch of productions with white throw ups.

We stumbled upon the scene a short while after writers started working on new pieces. Rasek demonstrated some handiwork with a pressurized canister, a technique rarely seen in Ottawa but common in Montreal and Toronto.

"Get back" Rasek cautioned onlookers as one of the canisters 'popped' under pressure, creating a  geyser of black paint and cheers from onlookers.

No writers were harmed in the making of this dripping wall.

The scene was surreal. There were impressive productions by Mopes, Cens, Hiero and Prank covered up that night. The huge Mopes piece took about 4 days to complete, and was only up for a few days before the whitewash.

Mopes (before)
Canada Day (after)
We didn't stick around long that morning- hot dog calling and such. Clearly there was a sense that the buff was a huge act of disrespect to the bigger writers. On the other hand, local writers know that the wall is going to be buffed in a few weeks in preparation for House of PainT, so the buff  was at least somewhat well timed.

A buffing like this has not happened for some time, which speaks to the relative ease that exists between most writers in this town. Do not mistake this ease with homogeneity, though. 

When I first started taking pics of graff three years ago, my response to buffing was defensive: "Man, I cannot believe that they covered that up!" The Cerk & Myrage production near the corner of Bank and Slater is an example of this.

Most writers seem to accept this as the nature of writing graffiti; the irony of this writer buff was not lost on most. Some productions have a long run, but few do. There is a zen-like approach to productions in the community:

Nothing is permanent. 

Always do better.

Show respect to those who do.

Alternatively, there are writers who take the position that legal graffiti is a violation of true graffiti. For example, there is at least one writer in Ottawa who has been known to buff over elaborate pieces the day after legal graffiti jams. Most writers I have talked to over the past few years are quite reflexive and accept the diversity that comes with graffiti. Different strokes for different folks.

Since Canada Day, the writers have returned to Tech. Last night I went back for a few pics: Jesro, Iltoner and Heiro (among others) were hard at work, knowing full well that the wall was going to be taken over by House of PainT jam on the weekend of August 6.


 In part, I suspect this return in spite of impending buff is fueled by a desire to not have the graffiti wall look unsightly for the next few weeks. Clearly there is a diverse graffiti community that is invested in the aesthetics of our city.

Policy makers need to keep these complexities in mind when they imagine who writes graffiti in our city.