Tuesday, October 29, 2013

On Street Art: A Note to Mayors Everywhere

Patrick Verel just sent me a link to his Fordham thesis about graffiti:
Verel, Patrick, "New York City Graffiti Murals: Signs of Hope, Marks of Distinction" (2013). Urban Studies Masters Theses. Paper 11.
He found out about me through Dylan Evans, who has coordinated several mural projects in Jersey City over the past few years, including the mural at the Lafayette Community Learning Garden on Pacific Avenue, a project I’ve been involved in.

I’ve not yet had a chance to read it, but I’ve blitzed through it a identified two passages that I’d like to bring to the attention of City Hall.

Verel did a number of case studies, including Philadelphia’s internationally known Mural Arts program, which was originally started to combat graffiti by putting ‘legit’ art on the walls. He interviewed spokesperson Amy Johnson by phone (p. 71):
Because the Mural Arts program has been around for so long and is so well known in Philadelphia, Johnson said the group rarely has to “sell” a mural to a property owner; fully half the murals commissioned are done at the request of the owners. The average mural measures 30 by 35 feet, and takes six months to complete. During that time, the group follows a 144-step process involving meetings and consultations with a sundry of residents, the property owner and the artist. It’s an exhaustive gauntlet, but it’s one that has resulted in only one project failing to materialize after it was started. Perhaps just as important, it insures that caretakers exist (i.e.: block captain, church group) for murals once they’re completed; located as they are outdoors, murals are vulnerable to the elements and require occasional maintenance.

This intense style of formalized, grass-roots level negotiation is in marked contrast to the often haphazard, “gentleman’s handshake” agreements that are the hallmark of most of the collaborations that I found in New York City. So too is the variety of murals in the city. Just as there is a gulf between what as acceptable to Stapleton, Staten Island and Hunts Point, so too is there a noticeable difference between How’s and Nosm’s mural in City Center and David Guinn’s The Heart of Baltimore Avenue in West Philadelphia. That’s not an accident, as Johnson said they no longer think of themselves as an anti-graffiti program, but rather a pro art program.
He concludes by recommending that New York City change its policy on graffiti (pp. 100-101):
The official position of the City of New York is that penalties for graffiti must be harsh (the sale of spray paint to minors is illegal, and hefty punishments are handed down when perpetrators are caught, including felony charges for multiple arrests of those over 18), as part of a larger strategy of crime fighting that embraces the “Broken Windows Theory.” But I propose that the city would do well to add another arrow to its quiver in its ongoing campaign against vandalism.

I envision a scenario in which a building owner of the future receives a notice from the city informing them they have graffiti on their building, and that they have 45 days to A. Respond with a confirmation that they will buff the graffiti themselves. B. Respond with a confirmation that they want the graffiti to remain. C. Ignore the notice, in which case the city buffs it with or without their permission. D. Respond with a request for a referral to a graffiti muralist. Of these four options, only the first three exist today. Artist referrals is something that Groundswell already does, and as the case studies in my paper show, there are plenty of writers who are experienced at collaborating with owners on a project agreeable to both.

Instead of lumping graffiti together with offenses such as loitering, fare jumping, public urination, public alcoholic consumption and petty theft—which under the Broken Windows Theory are considered an early warning system for larger, more serious crimes—the city should take a cue from the private property owners who currently support graffiti murals.
Jersey City should adopt Verel’s recommendation and establish a referral registry of qualified street artists.

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