Thursday, July 23, 2015

#BlackLivesMatter & Graffiti

Tuesday of this week, BlakCollectiv painted the message “Black Lives Matter” on the legal wall on the corner of Bronson and Slater.

Photo Credit: Haley Ritchie/Metro

By the next day, the mural was painted over by local writers. This morning I stopped by to take photos and accusations of “white privilege” now adorn the wall. The press was invited to recount this call and answer, naming sides (as if they were mutually exclusive categories) “activists” vs. “graffiti writers”. They are calling it a "clash" but the bad guys are not being called out yet, which is not surprising given the press typically frame such parties (activists, people of colour, graffiti writers) as bad guys almost exclusively.

I am writing today hopefully to defuse tensions that are unfolding between two groups who are devoted to similar causes, but are under the spotlight right now for a battle that is a bit like Shaoli vs. Wu-Tang. Currently, there seems to be debates over turf and style, questions about who has a right to write there:

Were BlakCollectiv wrong to paint at tech wall? No. Of course not. Its a legal graffiti wall.

Were the local graffiti writers wrong to paint over the #BlackLivesMatter? No. Of course not.
They were responding according to the informal rules of the wall born out of the black tradition of NYC graffiti culture, a point that Adae Baj points out in the Metro article.

Art should bring about discussion...and here we are. I  humbly offer these few observations up as the discussion continues:
1. There is nowhere else in the City of Ottawa that the BlakCollectiv could write this important message in a substantial way without the work being considered vandalism (and you can bet that The City would have painted over this work just as fast if it were elsewhere else). Because there are only two substantial walls in this city where the racialized aesthetic of graffiti is permitted, local graffiti writers are quite protective of these spaces.

2. The only reason why the city has these two walls is because of the work of many young people in our city (of many different racial ethnicity) who have fought and supported the maintenance of these walls. This has been accomplished through 12 years of collective action and is celebrated annually with House of Paint: a huge event devoted to the history and political importance of Urban Arts and Hip Hop. This wall is a space of resistance. There should be more of them in this town.

3. We live in a city that has regulated public space in such a way that the voices of those who live on the margins are silenced. We have bylaws that have ensured that racialized art forms are handled with suspicion, while the wrong person is absurdly celebrated in public art - at taxpayer expense - with no oversight at all. This is worth challenging, and the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is worth supporting.

I would ask everyone who has become involved in this drama to consider the party to this conflict who is not being mentioned. The City of Ottawa has left both communities with very little space to speak. The result is a "clash" over scarce resources.

The press will amplify this dispute, and in the end it will serve city counsellors who need votes in the suburbs to argue fallaciously that ‘graffiti writers’ and ‘protesters’ are troublemakers that bring down their property values. Race is always an ideological factor in these claim, a point that Baj hints at when she says that racism is less overt in the US. This drama was created within a political structure that privileges those in power and it will be used to justify further regulation of those who resist it. Nobody wins, except The City of Ottawa and The Press (institutions that are like the “Qing Lord” of this drama).

If I may be so bold as to suggest a way forward: I am confident that a Black Lives Matter mural would be something that House of Paint would be happy to have as part of the festival, done in collaboration with the writers and BlakCollectiv.

I wonder if the press would show up for that story?