Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tough Debates Easy Targets

As I was picking my anklebiters from the world's best baby-sitter, I was greeted by a chorus of kids telling me that I was in a magazine! Ah, and as it turns out, today is the day my response to the questions "Should we get Tough on Graffiti" came out in the Costco magazine, Connection. I had no idea how the page would be framed or who was going to be arguing the 'yes' part of the question, so I was intrigued to see how it all came together.

Costco Connections (page 16).
Overall, I am happy with the outcome. There is only so much one can say in a 400 word essay. I do like that the graffiti writer is painting a peace sign!! The people at Costco in contact with me were kindly receptive to many of the ideas (I dare say 'enthusiastic'). I would be happy to talk with them again.

This debate serve as a drama, if you will, of what is 'sayable' about contemporary graffiti today in mainstream discourse. It highlights the assumptions about the problem, and provides a polarizing 'snapshot' of views. In reading over the article tonight, I noticed the difference between how opinions differ in this polarization play.

Notice how those who like graffiti do not make claims to any kind of 'knowlege' outside of their preference for how something looks. If any expertise is claimed by the "yes" side, its attributed to the genius of the writers (I was a bit weirded out with being bestowed the 'expert' label, admittedly ). The "no" side, however, attempts to make claims about the harm caused by graffiti ,and herein lies one of the largest problems of logic with arguing "yes" to the question of getting 'tough' without any evidence that it will do what you assume you want it to. 

Mayor Rouleau speak about the 'get tough' policies his community of Dorval has implemented to deal with graffiti outside of the regular 'vandalism' bylaws. Dorval policies, though, are arguably less harsh responses than what the City of Ottawa currently implements or the City of London Ontario, which has recently implemented a ban on the sale of "tools of graffiti" to minors (given that most young people have access to the internet, I suspect the only person being hurt here is... surprise: businesses!)

So what doe's "tougher" mean, anyways? 

I understand that Mayor Rouleau, as well as other municipal  governments in Canada, wish to address those who vote them into power. This power, however, should not be to assume that the squeaky wheel is always right. The "yes" side assumes that graffiti makes an area look like it is decline. Here's a stroller that went up in price once it got a little graffiti added to it. Where is the evidence for this 'feeling' of urban decline?  

Here is where municipalities can truly show powerful leadership. 
Address these feelings without turning to the law. Period.
Simply put: creating unproven policy (and implied enforcement) is an expensive way to make people feel safer (and really...does it even do that? My guess would be 'no')

As I wandered around my town this weekend, I was lucky enough to see what happens when different social groups take up the same few blocks of a city.  As local writers recreated the only visible legal wall in Ottawa, the gay pride parade made its way around the same block, 90s dance music booming paraders along. The same thing seems to happen every year in Montreal as Gay Pride weekend and Under Pressure co-exist within the same neighborhood. 

There is plenty of evidence that increasing policing strategies only make the situation worse.If you were interested in what most of the research says about 'get tough' approaches to crime, you will find that it overwhelmingly finds it expensive and unhelpful. It does nothing but create larger disparities between social groups. It's popular, sure: so is Britney Spears. We can do better. 

Rightly, the Mayor knows that these are not violent acts; therefor enacting policy that encourages violence directed at writers by 'heroes' (what writers call  vigilantes who try to take the law into their own hands) defies logic. I know of one writer who was threatened at the legal graffiti wall by such a hero. Not good.

 There is an ugly underbelly to "getting tougher" that most people would find unreasonable.

"Graffiti writers" tend to be easy targets in these days of "Tough on Crime" agendas. There is something more here worth considering, if one was only willing to look past all the assumptions. Municipalities bear this obligation to consider more than most. 

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.


Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Art (and Irony) of War & Peace

Two steps forward, one back...wayyyy back.

While this past weekend marked another highly successful House of PainT urban arts festival, The City of Ottawa demonstrated - once again - its short sightedness when it comes to art and public space.

A local community centre invited an artist and youth to collaborate on a mural (see story below). Some people in the neighborhood complained about the mural and before anyone could say "moral panic", the City of Ottawa covered it with a tarp until they City workers could paint it over.

Did it show pornography? Was there hate speach involved? Was there ANY violation whatsoever to any federal, provincial, or municipal laws? Nope.

Thanks to Mike Young who scanned the front page of the Ottawa Citizen for me (the on-line version curiously does not show the actual mural)

The images on the painting grew out of a workshop for young people held last week on the theme of love. Home, mothers, flowers, birds, music were some of the ideas tossed about. B├ędard said the artist, who was working with a parent volunteer, used those images as a way to “disarm” the gun and open a dialogue on violence. (Ottawa Citizen)
I highly encourage you to read the article in full for yourself, including the artist's comments.

Those who complained about the mural did so, it seems, on the grounds that the image was detrimental to other young people: media effects; this flawed logic assumes that reading an image (hearing a song, watching a TV show) literally will translate into negative action. It is a theory that completely undermines our ability as individuals to contextualize, to inquire, to listen to others, to produce intelligent responses. It simplifies how we interact with images, people and media everyday.

If you ask the person who makes this argument if the image makes them feel violent they will usually respond with "Oh not ME...but you know...OTHER people will..."

Given the speed that the city reacted to public complaints, one has to wonder if they would react as quickly for calls complaining about bothersome advertising.
Remember the 1970s-80s fears about lyrics? Stairway to Heaven was suspected of speaking sweetly to Satan. In the United States, such concerns played out in the courts over Ozzy Osbourne's song Suicide Solution. The courts found that:
"[M]usical lyrics and poetry cannot be construed to contain the requisite 'call to action' for the elementary reason they simply are not intended to be and should not be read literally.... Reasonable persons understand musical lyrics and poetic conventions as the figurative expressions which they are."(Art on Trial)
The real damage here is the message The City gives to young people in our city, but in particular to those involved in the production of this mural. Even though the mural was in NO WAY ILLEGAL, the City gave in to the squeaky wheels by telling the kids who are thinking about peace and violence to 'shut up'.

Why do they have to shut up? Because the City 'said so'. 

Is the image provacative? Yes.

And The City should have handled this thought provoking image in a productive way. They could have:
  • Supported a 'tour' of the image by the artist, children who contributed to it, the community centre workers. Curious or concerned citizens could hear about what ideas went into the making of this artwork.
  • Put up a plaque explaining the work to those interested in taking a closer look.
  • Invited local youth experts, police, and researchers to participate in a public forum to address fears about 'crime' and 'media' and 'youth'. 
  • Hosted a coffee shop or town hall discussion to help reassure concerned citizens that a mural would not cause crime or impair local children.
Tragically, The City buffed over the opportunity for individual parents sit down with their children in front of the mural and talk. Take the time, and talk. And perhaps that is what scared people the most. Taking the time to talk...

And here is the great irony of it all: The City of Ottawa and mainstream news media use the language of violence all the time, particularly when dealing with youth (speaking about a 'War on Graffiti' for example). But, when young people echo this back to us, The City worries that this kind of language will 'hurt' other kids. At least these young people were talking about neutralizing violence with peace... How dare the City silence them in this way. THAT is offensive.


And so, I end my rant today with this quote from Ray Bradbury's work, Farenheit 451:
With school turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word `intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar.

Monday, August 8, 2011

House of PainT Connects Funk with the City of Ottawa

Mike Gall and Sabra Ripley, along with an army of volunteers and community partners, put together an amazing invitation to anyone curious about the urban art and music scene this weekend.

Preceding Montreal's Under Pressure, House of PainT is an urban art celebration that may be smaller (for now) but is distinct in many ways.

Sunday: Piece Park Graffiti
I am sure there are many photos popping on-line so you can SEE how awesome it was quite easily; Ming Wu , for example, got some great action shots. I am going to punctuate my shots with thoughts about why this festival is important to Ottawa in particular.

 The theme this year was 'connect' and it was left open to artist interpretation. From the gala fund-raiser event early in the week on Thursday at the Fall Down Gallery, it became clear to me that connection is a core value in this community of young artists and performers.
Sabra Ripley addresses crowd at Gala Event, before we sang Happy Birthday to her Mom.
Perhaps this would also be a good time to remind people kind enough to read this blog that I stick out like a sore thumb in this crowd. I am a 41 year old mom of four kids who is also a university Professor in a criminology department. I am always humbled when 20 year olds patiently raise their fists to give me 'props', as I awkwardly try to reciprocate with varying degrees of coolness. This speaks to the idea of connection...something that House of PainT 2011 translated easily onto concrete walls and linoleum dance floors.

Saturday's main event was a HUGE success. The market area was grooving with three times as many vendors as years past, indicating that local businesses such as The Milk Shop see the growing value of urban art to our city.

Throw Back Threads sets up at the beginning of the day
The festival hosted a series of work shops directed at almost every age and skill group.  There was a special tent set up for kids workshops on everything from Break dancing to Spinning like a master DJ.

Nick Robinson from Groundwork Sessions Crew
The food included many vegetarian options (Yay Jen!). Considering that this event takes place near almost nothing (business wise), the HoP crew did an amazing job to keep hungry peeps fed. 

So here is what the City of Ottawa counsellors need to hear: this event was run primarily by twenty-somethings who do this above and beyond regular full time jobs.  They worked just as hard as the folks who run festivals like Bluesfest and Westfest but with less money. I have a fair amount of administrative experience in retail and academia (where red tape is King); I can say with some authority that these young men and women deserve your respect, not your limitations.

Finally, I have to give a shout out to the woman of this festival. It is not news to say that the urban art and music scene is dominated by men. Seeing tags thrown up on the corner of a small graffiti board saying "SKC loves Sluts" is an indicator of this macho element, which is a part of the larger culture we ALL live in. Art reflects life, after all.

HOWEVER, this festival is run in large part by many strong independent and confident women such as Sabra Ripley. One of the best performances of the day was by Eternia, a socially aware female rapper. Many women participated in the Bboy/girl battles and graffiti writing. How sexy is that?! It's downright inspiring, frankly.
Eternia performs in the packed stands
Look, I'm not interested in playing boys vs. girls in this scene. This festival provides evidence, though, that the Ottawa Urban Arts scene is unique and deserves the continued support of the City of Ottawa and its citizens. Culture moves - be a part of the change, I say!

If anyone asked me what I would like to see changed about this festival, it would be its visibility. I am thankful the City lends some support to this show every year. But they can do more to make it easier for the organizers. Let the writers use the OTHER side of this wall that faces Riverside Drive.
Crazy Apes (Montreal) Connect in Ottawa
I would also like to see the jam move from under the bridge to more public areas. Or maybe keep some parts under the bridge and allow for live art to unfold throughout the city (as Under Pressure does around and behind Foufounes). City Counsellors have the power to make an exemption to the "mural" bylaws for the festival. Unfortunately, given the most recent outrageous knee jerk reaction to a community centre mural, I suspect the urban art community will continue to have an uphill battle in a city which seems to be driven by suburbanite concerns (I will be responding to this story soon).

Nevertheless, to those artists and performers who helped put on House of PainT this year I say this: keep showing the City of Ottawa how amazingly talented and energetic you are. Given how this festival has grown, you KNOW there is support for the things you do.
Keep it growin!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Connect! House of PainT

House of PainT is growing into a huge celebration of  urban art, style, dance and groovy people in the sun; this week it all comes together.

Today the Market area got a lunchtime helping of pop and lock action. It felt good to be around the energy. I particularly like the theme of this year's jam:


Some City of Ottawa counsellors may think there is a War to be waged here, but clearly that vibe is not coming from the graffiti/bboy-girl scene.

Imagine: a group of young people merging creative energy around the idea of "connecting"! I remain impressed at the complexity and character of these young citizens who make a government town feel like a cultural urban playground.

"This is a kid friendly show!" I heard one of the crew say as he invited folks to hang around and watch. A group of young government employees behind me discuss the history of hip hop, and towns that tried to make break dancing illegal. House of PainT volunteers chatted up pedestrians, inviting them out to the jam on Saturday. An older woman on her way to the National Art Gallery was excited to hear that the City funded festivals such as House of PainT. There is hope pumping through these streets.

Oh and if you want to harness the energy surge in town this week, the 2011 Ottawa Ska Fest is this weekend too. Go to both - You can nap at your desk on Monday.

Second round of pop and locking will be on Parliament Hill tomorrow at lunch. Hey Harper, take a break from your Tough on Crime agenda for a few minutes, and come see what thrives in spite of your cuts to national funding of culture and arts programming.