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Free walls for street artists 

Public spaces could adorn the city

Regarding the recent uproar over graffiti in our area—due in no small part to Nic Rodriguez’s arrest as a suspected graffiti vandal—I ask: What constitutes art in SLO County and who is responsible for deciding?
   Certainly, notions of art, beauty, comedy, style, and taste vary wildly within any single population and far more so internationally. Moreover, what one generation regards as beautiful or funny, the former may have found obscene and the next may find oppressive.
   When a society begins to criticize creativity itself, whatever the form, it is treading dangerous ground. Remember China and its artistic bonfires. I suggest that San Luis Obispo’s response to graffiti echoes such repression. As an educated culture, let’s make an informed distinction between the imposing, territorial nature of tagging and the free-form expression with a message that is street art.
   We’ve seen the “SOAK” tag scrawled across newspaper stands, stop signs, and rubbish bins. It practically blankets this county. To me, it’s a blemish that detracts from progress toward legitimizing the truly free public expression that is street art.
   I recently met several street artists at the opening of Urban Escapades in the Jeff Claassen Gallery. Claassen has designated a small portion of wall space in his gallery as an “Authorized Graffiti Area,” which visitors and artists alike have put to use. In less than three hours on opening night, the “authorized” space became full and spilled over onto neighboring, unauthorized walls. Spray paint, permanent markers, postal stickers, and even lipstick were the mediums of choice, and “Death to SOAK” was a resounding theme. In fact, the “SOAK” tag has become so frowned upon by local street artists, the word itself is now an insult.
   As expected, the graffiti-inspired show drew the usual crowd of teenagers in torn pants, and Art After Dark participants. But along with the regulars, the crowd included a mix of graphic designers, a KSBY news crew, families with young children, street artists, retirees, freegans, and out-of-town art patrons. Mobbed with more than 250 visitors, the tiny gallery space was filled well beyond a comfortable capacity, but the vibe was enthusiastic and appreciative, and not a single item was reported damaged or stolen.
   To show solidarity, many of the participating artists donated art supplies to Nic Rodriguez to replace those taken as evidence against him by the San Luis Obispo Police Department. As of his first court hearing, none of the items taken (finished work, blank canvases, sketchbooks, paints, pens, and brushes) had been returned to him. But before any legal negotiations took place, the District Attorney had reduced his charges from 24 counts of vandalism to 14.
   It seems now that with such an outpouring of support—not to mention a sudden demand for his paintings—the city campaign to make an example of Rodriguez has backfired. A growing throng of supporters has rallied around him and supports the claim that he is not a vandal, but rather a legitimate artist.
   Still Rodriguez faces an expensive battle. In an effort to help raise funds toward Rodriguez’s mounting legal fees, Claassen intends to auction the “authorized graffiti area.”
   Graffitists should not be condemned as hoodlums and vandals. They are a segment of society fed up with the bombardment of billboards, mass promotion, and forced opinions, reclaiming our civic spaces. They believe that messages intended for the public should not be limited to those who can afford to buy or rent the platform. You might call them artistic squatters. But dare we call them artists? If they gain an inch, will they take a mile?
   Our community is divided over the issue. With conservatives publicly threatening to cane an artist suspected of posting graffiti, and liberals rallying in defense, “authorized graffiti areas” may be more than just a zinger to the establishment; they may be a good compromise. Our community should explore how Philadelphia, Chicago, Seattle, Toronto, and other cities have provided open art spaces. In much the same way that skateboard parks have been installed as safe alternatives to street-skating, open arts spaces enable popular public expression without complaint.
   The walls are like blank canvases, painted over at will by children, street artists, and traditional artists alike. Graffitists are provided with a space to collaborate and spend time legally and legitimately honing their artistic talents, which may later lead to careers.
   Designs are not rushed, and artists are not skittishly posting lookouts for police while painting. In participating cities, the open arts spaces have helped to discourage private property damage, and, in turn, lowered the prevalence of graffiti in surrounding areas. These spaces have even become something of a tourism draw and a symbol of the urban maturation of the communities.
   Not buying it? Think of how many people come to SLO and regard the gum-wall as a must see. Providing a public arts space within a community gives the public the authority to determine what is art. If a person doesn’t appreciate something on the open art wall, he or she simply paints over it. If you think that you can do better than that, you paint over it. No one wants to see SLO inundated by spray-painted stencils, postal stickers, tagging and painted-over graffiti. But do we want to live in a community that, even with a successful Arts Council in place, stifles abstract expression in favor of sterile pastoral scenes and vineyard-scapes?
Coral Kessler is a buyer at the Jeff Claassen Gallery. Send comments to her through the editor at [email protected].
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