Saturday, November 30, 2013

Kill Graffiti

Neither markings pictured above were done with permission; both have been up for a significant amount of time; both  'replicate' (similar images/writing appear elsewhere in the city, although not together). The juxtaposition of images here is not insignificant.  The people who came to this wall  did not interpret the fence as a ' do not go here" signal , instead they accepted the fence as an invitation to continue a conversation about who can shape these public spaces.
Many of you have probably noticed that I have not been updating as regularly as I used to. There are a couple reasons for that, the first of which is a growing commitment to a music project born out of my initial curiosity over the municipal regulation of busking and graffiti.

Another reason is a change in my thinking about my role in 'researching' graffiti.

An epiphany hit me recently when I was in Atlanta, being held captive in a hive of imposing hotels connected by glass elevators and pedways suspended over concrete rivers of abandoned streets flooded with the poorest of the poor swimming upstream. In presenting a paper, "Stop Calling it Graffiti", I realized: writing and singing without permission was never at risk of eradication from legislation. The regulation of such artistic endeavors is largely a symbolic act of voluntary surveillance,  devoted to maintaining the image that the state is able to control those 'vandals' and bands of roaming minstrels. The population it does not control is vast and liquid. 

To be clear, I stand by my  findings that these regimes of power contribute to fostering violent tensions between citizens by maintaining classist and exclusionary schemes of the municipality that attempt to define that which is: creative ; art;  the artists; the vandal.

I remain convinced that the city has an obligation to levy reasonable expenses on citizens to administer public services but it failed to do this by continuing to create 'graffiti strategies'. The City of Ottawa's current administration has inherited an ideological war on graffiti that will continue to escalate in costs. This blog will continue to question how the city 'creates' these costs as a way to justify the continuation of what is essentially a scenario reminiscent of the movie Wag the Dog: an imagined war to garner public opinion. 

You see, graffiti is ideology; it is not a concrete thing, as the image above illustrates so well; graffiti is as illusive of a concept as 'terrorism', and just as affective. It's time to kill the idea that "graffiti" is the problem. Even among those who would call themselves graffiti writers, there is little agreement about the defining characteristics of what makes something 'graffiti'.

I propose that a greater problem is an overall loss of  public spaces, or an overall alienation from the idea that public spaces are those areas which belong to citizens. I propose that it is a problematic that many people live in the shadows of economic fears, supporting the idea that these spaces should be regulated  in the name of private interests, who promise to protect the economic stability of our city. We only need to consider the economic struggles of the Byward Market to understand what happens when you allow a Business Improvement Association to alienate the very people who give a community the 'vibrancy' needed to sell the space (to tourists) as a local gem. Most citizen's everyday living includes art and music: it is not the role of the state to 'educate' us on what is good art and what is not. To do so breeds unnecessary and absurd regulations as well as economic and cultural expenses. 

That being said, I think this blog has stated this all before, backing up these claims with valid sources and empirical evidence. So, its time to start expanding the focus of this blog, for fear of repetition and in the spirit of growth.

Recently, we lost a great scholar: Distinguished Professor Jock Young. He wrote about many important ideas, some of which he chose to leave by the road side in favour of developing others that proved to be theoretically fruitful for his work and his community. In responding to a critic accusing him of changing positions on issues over the course of his long career,  I  heard him respond (and I am paraphrasing here): am I supposed to stick to the same thinking about the world I held when I was in my 20s simply because those ideas were published? The world has changed, and so has my thinking about it.

You will be missed, Jock. 

This blog will continue to devote a great amount of space to that style that many people would recognize as graffiti (because i do love it - the bigger the drip, the better); I will remain a supporter of House of Paint, and those wishing to challenge these strange bylaws of taste; however, the blog will be expanding its reflections to include other aesthetic aspects of public space in Ottawa.

Let me know what you think as time rolls on...

Note: the title of this blog is inspired by this article written by my graffiti-appreciating colleague Jeff Ferrell who offers us a provocative critique about methodological fetishization in contemporary criminology. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Back to School with House of Paint

The dust is barely settling from the House of Paint's 10 year celebration, and the party was inspiring! Before the big celebration, I was invited to chat with CBC Communications Officer Joanne Steventon about graffiti, legal walls and why these spaces are important to our city.

House of Paint from CBC Ottawa on Vimeo.

Thanks Joanne, for taking the time to hear how complex the topic of graffiti is, particularly in Ottawa.
And thanks CBC for providing House of Paint with the much needed support.

Clarification: the video is edited by the CBC so that at one point I am talking about writers from Montreal, but a piece from Cens is featured (a local writer from Ottawa). 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Climb that Wall

House of Paint
Photo Credit: Landry
The wall got a little bit smaller today.

I just got word today that the City of Ottawa and The Ottawa School Board, which hosts one of Ottawa's historic legal walls, have raised concerns about a ladder that writers have kept stored at the Tech Wall for years. They want it disposed of.

The concern being expressed by these two governing bodies, I suspect, are largely based on actuarial type risks; think insurance companies, risk and public space.

I am going to assume the decision to remove the ladder was made without thinking through the consequences of this request. As such, I am making a public plea to both the Board and the City of Ottawa to re-evaluate what it is that they are asking of the citizens who use this park.

Daser Photo Credit: Simon Milligan
First, this action limits writers to working on the lower half of the wall. I am sure local fans of graffiti/urban art will recall the impressive Daser productions that have graced a large portion of the wall over the years. Filling the wall , Daser inspires writers to think big, think complex, think beyond the 'tag'. Where else can artists get practice working on larger scale projects so that maybe someday they will create art for Ottawa akin to what Omen has recently created in Windsor, Ontario, or A'Shop has done for Montreal?

Never, Heiro & Prank
Photo Credit: Sneak @
When a production is not taking up the height, the wall runs like a comic book strip, showcasing two rows of work at any given time. The ladder is relied upon to fill the top strip. The top is usually the last to get filled because it is difficult to run up and down rungs all afternoon. Women who write at the wall typically do so up high, so that their work will run a bit longer  than it would otherwise if it took up a lower section. The fact of the matter is, graffiti is a largely a male dominated activity; it ain't easy making a name for yourself as a writer when you are a woman (although it is certainly not impossible). By taking away the ladder, you are making the wall a little less welcoming space for women writers.

The removal of the ladder demonstrates a lack of understanding of how the writers use the wall, and how important 'up' is to writers. You can take away the ladder, and some will still get 'up'. HOW they will get up, however, will most likely be MORE dangerous than standing on an aging ladder stored behind a fence year round. I've seen some pretty precarious balancing acts in my time at that wall.

If the Board is truly concerned about the safety of the writers, why not offer an annual ladder exchange: out with the old, in with the new: a kind of harm reduction approach to art. I checked Home Depot online, and for about 175$, you can get a pretty sweet ladder. Given the importance of this wall in contributing to the urban landscape of this city, a ladder is a small cost for this liquid year round mural offered up to OC Transit riders for free everyday. You can even put a wee sign on it: "use this sweet ladder at your own risk..."

Authority with a sense of humour is always appreciated.

If none of what I have written sways you, consider this:  making it more difficult for writers to use a space that the city said they could legally use gives writers more reasons to distrust the city, and be cynical about their willingness to work with writers. Writers have contacted me today, expressing understandable frustration :  try to work with the city on their terms, and you lose ground each year, inch by inch.

It's not "just" a ladder.

If you make it more difficult for someone to write at this wall, they will write elsewhere. So, yes, you should fear that they move on to cities like Montreal or Toronto, where they go on to learn how to fill skyscrapers to the delight of tourists and transit users alike.

What a terrible resource to chase out of our town, all over a ladder.

If you are a citizen of Ottawa who feels that there is a better way to assure the Board and City of their concerns over the use of a ladder, why not call 3-1-1 and suggest a more equitable solution than ladder removal.

Crazy Apes Production
 Photo Credit: Sneak

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Subterranean Homesick Blues

Long time no post, eh? My apologies for not updating sooner. Special thanks to Jon for reminding me that its time for me to get back to my blogging duties.

 To be honest: though, this is a post that is not really even about graffiti. Or is it? I'm really not sure anymore.

The Ottawa Citizen recently reported on a Bob Dylan & Jimi Hendrix mural that was put up around the main entrance of a Centretown pub, Pour Boy Pub; Unbeknownst to the owner, such unauthorized murals are not permitted. The owner of the pub - understandably - had no idea that putting up a mural on his own property would be illegal, and was faced with  its removal after paying for the commission. Eventually, Ottawa's Planning Committee realized the absurdity of this all and permitted an "exemption" to the rule. The Planning Committee and City Councilors put it to a vote after the fact, grumbling about it as a 'waste of time': agreed. And resources.

The City of Ottawa really only has itself to blame in all this though. This all would have went by unnoticed, if not for the call made to the 3-1-1 complaint line about this mural. Perhaps the person calling to complain about the Dylan mural is still upset the electric guitar set in Newport, 1965. Perhaps Jimi Hendrix's version of the Star Spangled Banner rings like tinnitus in her or his ears. Not everyone can see 'mad beauty' in the unorthodox: and so, the absurdity continues...

Remember: our city heavily invests in educating the public about what graffiti is and who to call (3-1-1) as part of the ongoing municipal anti-graffiti strategy.

But really...what IS graffiti?

The key stakeholders in the anti-graffiti legislation presumably thought this was a straightforward issue

[dream sequence]

Stakeholder: "c' know...graffiti... any kind of image or writing that is unauthorized ...a disrespect of who owns that property!"

Me: You mean like The Secret Bench by sculptor Lea Vivot?

Stakeholder:"No no no. That is clearly fine art by an established artist. A lot of people liked that statue. But OK ok ok...I see your point. Lets say this then: Graffiti has messages in them that the Average Canadian can't understand. Yes, letters that most people can't read and  images, which are uninvited by the owner of a property."

Me: Like Roadsworth?

Stakeholder: " Uh...well...we didn't know that was uninvited art at first...and well...we liked what he did. The City of Montreal actually hired him after prosecuting its all good."

In impossibly trying to communicate objectively what graffiti is to its citizens, The City of Ottawa has (unwittingly?)  fostered the following message to its citizens: if you don't like the looks of something, it's probably graffiti. Complain: the squeaky wheel will get the grease. That hardly sounds democratic  now, does it? The image of our city being determined by an unrepresentative amount of complaints. I say unwittingly as a question, because (except for perhaps Barhaven's councilor) I cannot imagine anyone with reasonable critical thinking skills in City Hall finds this approach fair, effective, efficient or helpful.

A call to the 3-1-1 number will get bylaw on the case to determine whether the art you dislike is indeed "graffiti" or a Banksy. Oh wait: Is it still graffiti if the owner of the building WANTS it? What about when a municipality or a community wants it? Well that depends...

Consider this response to the contentious Lansdowne Park re-development an example of what happens when folks like Authur II stand next to his neighbors (some who self-identify as graffiti writers) to challenge the City of Ottawa's take on aesthetics and community.(similar issues are afoot in the Byward Market Busking Scene). What makes this a mural as opposed to graffiti? It is unsanctioned, and it violates all the mural legislation. Arguably, the bylaw could buff it and stick the Landsdown Park folks with the bill, but they have not... (and, to be clear: I truly hope they do not buff this wall).

Mokar next to a Yellow Submarine of Love....

Any images facing Bank Street have been covered or 'buffed'

Enter Subterranean Values as food for thought, then: In the 1960s, Matza & Sykes (building upon the work of CW Mills) demonstrate how behaviors recognized more popularly as "delinquent acts" are not as deviant as most people would like to believe; further, what comes to be communicated as "normal values" are largely exaggerated. The reason why this theory remains relevant for today is in large part because of their observation: the motivations behind "delinquent" behavior (thrill, adventure and prestige, for example) are the same motivations for "normal" behavior. Veblin made similar observations in the early 1900s, suggesting that danger, thrill and adventure become signs of prestige as this signals one can afford' to be risky and wasteful,  a value not extended to the lower classes. Female prisoners in the 1800s were charged with being "lazy", while wealthy women were expected to assume the role of  'ladies of leisure'-  a sign of their husband's wealth.

If I have not lost you in my wordy post yet, hopefully you see my point: the same behavior is read differently depending on the cultural assumptions circulating about who is doing the act (and why). 

Moreover, if we allow the state (municipality) to regulate what is 'nice' (and safe), this will only lead to  "trope infection" (a term I borrow from jwc): more grey walls, more mundane images that trouble nobody.

Buff this...