Friday, August 28, 2009

Graffiti Controversy and Terminology

Tucson, AZ - Graffiti is a huge issue here in this creative city as you can read in the Tucson Weekly.

It’s one of those flashing light cultural indicators that we need more hip after school, evening and weekend community arts programs.

I was always more into chalk as a kid. We got busted at 15 for spray painting shadow stencils in memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We were supposed to use a soapy tempera that would wash away, but we had a thing for spray paints – they were fast, you could gesture while blending colors, throw in some stencils and the sky was the limit. We spent many hours scrubbing off the spray paint after being confronted by elders in our community. That was the end of my experimentation with aerosols. Surrounded by a family and community who were paying attention, it wasn’t long before my energy was redirected towards art classes, sign painting and illustration.

Things haven't changed that much, there are just tons more rebellious, intelligent, talented kids with too much time on their hands. Tapping into this energetic brain trust isn’t that hard, you just need structured, participant driven, meaningful programming that promotes dialogue and stewardship and results in something tangible and meaningful. That might be a magazine, radio or TV show, theater production or mural. It might even be a aerosol mural, or paint and aerosol.

In other words it’s not the medium an artist is working in, but the thought and craft put into the work. Pose 2 , and Bansky are two examples of aerosol artists taking it to a higher level. Trust me there are thousands of others whose masterful artwork would blow your mind.

My concerns around aerosols are primarily environmental. The mist is harmful to individual and global health. The empty cans are hazardous waste. I’ve been researching and talking a lot with colleagues about the “greening” of art supplies. The only thing that is clear is we need to use our materials wisely, and conserve at every step. The waste produced by our work should be carefully considered. Many feel that the making of art may be of greater value than the carbon imprint created through the materials we use. This is a separate conversation, and one that will continue.

My paint skins in an adobe brick experiment.

That said there are craftspeople who use aerosols responsibly, and others who are careless. What we as community artists teach is care and respect for our materials, stewardship for the places we live and attention to craft. The same is true for every teaching artist I know.

So lets be clear and not talk about “Graffiti” as a monolithic phenomenon. There is a difference between aerosol artists and “Graffiti”. If one attributes aerosol classes and murals to vandalism, then we could use that same line of reasoning to assume that these kids are also responsible for other aerosol applications like nicely painted cars and airplanes. Clearly the classes intend to promote stewardship, dialogue and responsibility, and redirect energy from a trend towards isolationism and fear. Dolly Spalding describes this well in her article “Urban Art” for the new hip Tucson zine’ Zocalo.

Such was the metamorphosis of the Water Building mural.

Teaching Artist/Muralist Rocky Martinez with Ninety-nine year old Frank Pesqueira

This successful mural is a colorful testimony to transformation and the democratic process. The project involved our community in a public dialogue and design process that reflects an ability to make decisions as a group or people. Projects like this promote civic pride and participation.

Implicit in the work of many community muralists is the idea that we can bring together a broad cross section of the community to create a visual representation of our common hopes and aspirations. After more than 20 years of doing this work I still am exhilarated by the response of people during community events. By creating a place where all voices are equal and cherished we practice what it means to live in a pluralistic society. Labels and ideology are momentarily transcended giving us the opportunity to delight in our shared humanity. Where we come from, our dreams, aspirations, challenges, songs and recipes. These opportunities to share and learn from one another involve trust and relationship building. That takes time, care and responsibility. That’s part of what community artists are doing, and we invite you to join us.