Friday, August 31, 2012

Running on Empty: Part 2

This post is for those who were curious about my query into how the anti-graffiti Graffiti Me Run Series was doing in finding a charity to give money to. I have news! (My Email exchange with organizers resulted in being told: watch the webpage for more info)

This morning my partner noticed Facebook was presenting ads for the Color Vibe Run [sic], which looked strikingly similar to the Graffiti Me Run. Low and behold, the folks at Graffiti Me have gone through a marketing change of heart.


Gone from the website is double talk about graffiti; so too, however, is the charity-speak. Nary a mention about donations to charities or community beautification projects may be found. Will organizers be offering refunds to those who signed up believing a portion of their registration fees would go to charity? Bah...these are questions for the participants to ask, I suppose. Caveat emptor.

My beef with the Graffiti Me branding was the organizers reluctance to acknowledge the countless graffiti writers since the 1970s who have collectively produced what most people recognize today as urban graffiti, all the while drawing up these efforts to sell the event. Worse than that hypocrisy though, the web page condemns the act of writing graffiti, by calling it a crime: "We don't condone vandalism" Oh no no...you just want to exploit it to sell people on your crappy little run and the fiction that you are charitable.

I called bullshit and clearly others must have too, thus uncovering the organization's true colours.

While perhaps not a shocking discovery, this change in branding strategy provides evidence that corporate entities and other profit-driven organizations will draw upon altruistic rhetoric when it conveniences them, even at the detriment of others. In this case, when the use of graffiti to promote the event ceased, so too did the interest in being a charity. Think about that the next time a box store in Parkinglotopia tries to sell you on what environmentally responsible community members they are.

More importantly for me, though, this change shows that holding the authors of public texts accountable for the double speak they use CAN result in at least some kind of change (admittedly a small change - they are still using some graffiti aesthetics in the header, but they have dropped their explicitly dysfunctional relationship to graffiti).

You wanna make a buck by organizing a race? Go for it. But don't brand people as 'bad citizens' in order to sell your product. A mentor of mine taught me early on in my academic career: Only people without merit rely on putting other people down to prop themselves up. If you are indeed a person of quality, you need only demonstrate your skill in order to convince others of your value. (Thanks Dr. Michael Overington!)

I think Kenneth Burke would be happy with this change in branding. And so too am I.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Running on Empty

One of the cool things about my life: good friends are always sending me interesting stuff about graffiti (music, and running...). A fellow running enthusiast recently sent me this gem: "Graffiti Me Race Series".
The web site attempts to attract race participants with bold colourful images of smiling young White people covered in paint splatter:
At the Graffiti Me 5k run, YOU are our color canvas, and when you’re finished with us you’ll be an exciting and vivid masterpiece. So tag your friends and hook everybody up with the coolest 5k color blast 5K run to hit the streets
The use of graffiti-esque terms like "tag", images of vibrant city skylines and graffiti style lettering effectively frames the event as an edgy young urban experience. Nevermind the fact that you are actually running on a horse track on the outskirts of town in the case of Ottawa...

But wait! The GRAFFITI Me Run Series does not want to give you the impression that they support the creation of...um... graffiti. The site adopts War on Graffiti language to make their dysfunctional relationship to graffiti as clear as corn chowder:
There is a place for all artwork, but defacing, tagging, and vandalizing our beautiful cities is definitely not the venue and we work to combat it.
To further prove that the GRAFFITI Me Run Series absolutely DOES NOT condone graffiti, the GRAFFITI Me Run Series web site claims to give money directly to graffiti management and 'beautification' projects in the cities that host the events. I have a sneaking suspicion (but no evidence) that the organizers might consider the cost of the municipal event permit as said donation. I will keep you posted on this point if anyone at the GRAFFITI Me website answers my inquiry on this point.

But WOW, that seems like a lot of PR work if you have a problem with graffiti; Wouldn't it be easier to call your event the 'Rainbow Run Series', for example? That way one can avoid any confusion over your institutions view on the production of graffiti.

The answer is obvious, of course: there is a (hetero/masculine)sexy bend to calling it a "graffiti" run. The event banks on selling participants the illusion of colourful safe danger that comes with the promise of urban living. Neon splattered images of city skylines underline each page. Are grey and glass sky scrapers not colourful enough to communicate urban excitement? Apparently not.


Corporate entities and municipalities alike attempt to redefine graffiti as a form without history, which suits marketing and urban planning strategies nicely. In justifying their thematic use of graffiti, organizers attempt to redefine graffiti as an art without connection to unsanctioned writing. It's as if they want to pretend that the urban wild style aesthetic might exist apart from unsanctioned graffiti.

Well, it wouldn't. To pretend otherwise is embarrassingly disingenuous.

The socio-political basis for what most people would recognize as urban graffiti is located in ancient tensions around public discourse and personal relationships, political outcries on the walls of prisons, in conflicts over 'branding' public space.

Contemporary urban graffiti is as 'everyday' as rock and roll: to make our kids rooms look cute, brighten up hum-drum city events like Winterlude, sell us pharmaceuticals and Chevrolet cars. How bizarre to dismiss the very community that made this style possible!

And so what to do about the GRAFFITI Me Run Series in Ottawa mid September? I offer you two other alternatives for your warm September weekends:

If you are TRULY interested or curious about graffiti, why not check out the AMAZING events at this year's House of PainT (happening September 15th & 16th!). Check out the line up for the Sunday concert under the bridge! If you want to be covered in paint, you can always volunteer to paint primer on the bridge with us before the writers take to the walls on Saturday.

If you want to run, though, give your money to the Terry Fox Foundation and run for them on September 22nd. They are much more upfront about donations, and its a clearly worthy cause made fun for everyone in the family, with NO entry fee.

Feel free to take both my suggestions.

[Side Rant/Footnote: Its lovely that people are interested in their health. It is good to have goals, I suppose. However, many of these organized events create a tremendous amount of environmental waste in an afternoon of "health and good will".

Organized race series that produce thousands of tonnes of garbage under the rhetorical veil of health and charity is akin to a child with her contest winning "Save the Earth" poster who expects to be rewarded with a drive in the family SUV to McDonalds for a Happy Meal. The GRAFFITI Me Race Series shares this cognitive dissonance.]