Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Contesting the war on graffiti: Zero Tolerance, Uprock and Outpost

OK, so this is my first post here for ages ... it's been a crazy few weeks! Hopefully I've now got some time to catch up on various things that have been going on around the place.

First up, graffiti stuff. Back in October and November, I ended up talking on graffiti and street art at three different events. These three events were really interesting examples of different approaches to trying to contest the escalating war on graffiti -- one was the launch of a book documenting a legal graffiti project trying to advocate on behalf of alternative policy approaches, one was a group small of graffiti writers at a hip hop summit trying to figure out collective strategies, and one was at a giant state-sponsored exhibition of graffiti and street art in Sydney which attracted over 50,000 visitors. So, here are some extended reflections on it all...

Zero Tolerance - The Blue Mountains Street Art Collaborative

The first event was the launch of Zero Tolerance, a book published by the Moutains Youth Service Team about the Blue Mountains Street Art Collaborative (BMSAC). BMSAC is a collective of Blue Mountains street artists that has sought to negotiate legal opportunities for large-scale graffiti and street art. The project was coordinated by Jarrod Wheatley, and it has had quite a bit of success. As the book shows, BMSAC has produced lots of terrific work, and in the process it has gained positive press in the local newspapers and won a Greater Western Sydney Community Services Award.

I had an essay in the book, in which I tried to make the point that graffiti and street art aren't necessarily signs of urban decay, but can also be signs of life. The book also has essays by Jarrod and the photographer Peter Adams, as well as profile interviews with some of the artists involved and (of course!) lots of glorious flicks. You can check out the essays and pics online (or order a hard copy of the book) here.

What's really interesting about Zero Tolerance is that its advocacy of legal opportunities for graffiti does not gloss over the realities of the graffiti and street art scenes. The first half of the book documents the BMSAC project, and so is exclusively devoted to legal work and its contribution to both urban aesthetics and community development. The second half of the book is devoted to artist profiles, and it doesn't attempt to censor their perspectives. Some of the artists involved, like many of their peers, do both legal and illegal work. They're very upfront about this, and there are pictures of painted train carriages alongside legal walls accompanying some of these profiles. Jarrod and Peter were very committed to including their perspectives, in the hope that it might expose a wider audience to the views of a diverse range of artists.

This made the launch a pretty interesting event. It was held in one of the function rooms at the Carrington Hotel, a beautiful old heritage building in Katoomba, and attracted a very diverse crowd. One of the other speakers was Roza Sage, Liberal MP for the Blue Mountains. She was obviously pretty uncomfortable with some of the perspectives contained in the book, and said as much. But she also told a story about a wall across the road from her dental surgery in Katoomba that had been spruced up (legally) by BMSAC artists, and noted how much positive feedback the piece had received. As she put it during her speech: “I must say that I don’t agree with some of the comments in the book but it does what it says: it creates discussion around that vexing issue of graffiti.”

The day after the launch, the Sunday Telegraph (a Sydney tabloid) ran a short story under the headline "O'Farrell Fury at Graffiti Book", in which the Premier was quoted as saying that the money spent on the project and book “would have been better used cleaning up graffiti in the Blue Mountains". The article included an apparently outrageous quote from my essay ("good quality graffiti can make a contribution to improving quality of life in our neighbourhoods"). Thanks for the free publicity Barry!

Big thanks also to to MYST, the Carrington Hotel, Jarrod Wheatley and Peter Adams for their hospitality - it was great to have the opportunity to say a few words in support of the project and book at the launch.


A couple of weeks later, I was sitting on a basketball court in Belmore running a workshop called "The right to write: defending graffiti art and culture in the face of the war on graffiti." The workshop was part of the Uprock hip hop summit organised by Krosswerds. Mistery, a writer I've known for longer than either of us probably care to think about (and a partner in crime in Keep Australia Colourful), was one of the organisers.

It was great to have a chance to sit down and talk with writers young and not so young about the kinds of strategies they've used in different places to try to make space for graffiti. Given that the anti-graffiti State Governments in Australia seem to be a bit of a lost cause, a lot of the conversation ended up focusing on the kinds of 'workarounds' that people are finding locally. A bunch of ideas floated around -- about how to find allies and build alliances in neighbourhoods with property owners and service providers, about the need to speak up in local government forums (given that anti-graffiti advocates are constantly putting pressure on councils to fall in line with the zero tolerance approach), and about the difficulties of writers actually working together on campaigns when the culture is in many ways very individualistic. I also handed out lots of free copies of the Zero Tolerance book, having just got a box load at the launch ... so that worked out well!

One of the highlights of Uprock for me was getting to meet some members of the TMD Crew from Auckland, who had come across for conference. They do amazing work, and had an interesting story to tell about a recent conflict over a wall on Poynton Terrace in Auckland's famous K-Rd area. A massive piece by Askew One, Deus and Berst was painted grey by contractors working for Auckland Council, presumably as part of the massive graffiti eradification program that was underway in preparation for the Rugby World Cup.

Askew, Deus, Burst, Auckland 2009. Image from
The Council subsequently received so many complaints from locals and graffiti lovers about the piece being buffed that they decided to commission a replacement artwork. They initially called for submissions from artists, with a stipulation that "the mural must not be signed" and "the design should not incorporate elements that could be mistaken for vandalism". In other words, it couldn't be graffiti or graffiti-style. Indeed, the mural project was to be managed by Council's graffiti prevention officer.

This solution attracted further complaints and opposition from Askew One and others. Finally, it appears that Council have changed their mind. It has withdrawn its call for submissions, and has come to an agreement with Askew on behalf of the artists to repaint the wall. Askew priced a new piece at $10,440, and has donated this money to earthquake relief for Christchurch. (You can get a first person account of the whole drama as it unfolded from Askew One at his blog here, here and here.)

This is a great example of how walls spectacular pieces can become a highly valued part of urban landscapes, and of people actually mobilising to protect such a piece. Most graffiti eradication policies are premised on the idea that if a piece does not have formal approval from a State authority it is fair game for their paint rollers. But as we see in this instance and in others, when these pieces get buffed,  it's the authorities who end up being framed as the vandals.

The TMDers also spoke about Saber One's efforts to protect murals in Los Angeles from new City policies which would effectively ban public artwork. Saber is an LA (and indeed) global graf legend ... I had the pleasure of talking to him a couple of years ago for my piece in City on "The wars on graffiti and the new military urbanism", and for a short piece in Graphotism mag on the buffing of his famous LA River piece. He even hired a sky-writer to help launch the pro-murals campaign ... not something we could probably all afford, but nice nonetheless! The campaign there continues, and you can keep track of how things develop (and buy a t-shirt supporting the campaign!) via Saber's blog.

End Mural Moratirium, Saber One, LA October 2011. Image from here


A few days after Uprock, I was part of a panel discussion on the politics of street art with Tom Civil, Mini Graff, and Alison Young. The panel took place on Cockatoo Island, an Island in the middle of Sydney Harbour, as part of the Outpost - Art from the Streets exhibition that was happening there.

Being on Cockatoo Island brought back lots of memories for me. One of the very first political actions I remember being involved in was the occupation of Cockatoo Island by striking workers back in 1989. Back then, it was a naval dockyard, and some of my dad's mates had jobs there as metalworkers -- until the Commonwealth Government announced the closure of the dock. In an attempt to save their jobs, the island was occupied for over three months, and there were regular protests in the city too. The action was pretty full-on, and eventually unsuccessful. Now, the workshops are on the heritage register, and the Island is used for the occasional festival or exhibition...

So, it was pretty weird seeing the workshops and open spaces on the Island covered in fabulous art. And given the escalating war on graffiti, it was also weird to see another arm of the state (in this case, the Commonwealth Sydney Harbour Trust) putting on a blockbuster exhibition of graf and street art.

The panel discussion was really well facilitated by Jess Scully. In fact, this is probably the first of these kind of panels that I've been involved in where the first question to the panel was not: "So, is graffiti art or crime?" Yay, Jess! She had some really interesting, well-researched questions which I think made for an interesting discussion. Alison Young had some powerful things to say about the escalation of punitive anti-graffiti legislation around Australia. Tom Civil raised some difficult questions about the class politics of graffiti and street art regulation, noting that the toughest penalties seem (to him) to be targeted at the more working class tagging/graf scenes, where established street artists are more likely to be able to talk their way out of sticky situations. Mini Graff got stuck into the hypocrisy of various urban authorities who are inviting her to submit forms in triplicate for various commissions based on the quality of her street work, which they are busy buffing at every opportunity. And I got to say a few things about the contribution of graffiti and street art to urban environments, and also about the need for those who practice/appreciate this to act collectively and politically.

This last issue was something we ended up talking about quite a bit, as Jess was interested in the relationship between the politics of putting uncommissioned writing/art on the street and the political content of that writing/art. Tom and Mini were both interested in pushing the political content of their work, and each was drawing on different traditions and inspiration to put this into effect. But it's a further dimension of politics that interests me more and more -- as well form and content, there's also the question of the subjectivity of writers and artists. What are the possibilities for acting more collectively on these issues, and is such action important and/or necessary?

Based on some interviews I've done over the last couple of years with folks who were involved in BUGAUP in Sydney in the 1980s (that's Billboard Utilising Graffitists Against Unhealthy Promotions), I'm starting to think a little differently on this particular issue. But I probably should save that for another post ... this one is already long enough!

For now, I'll sign off with some pics from Outpost. Alison has some excellent pics up and a review of the exhibition itself on her great blog Images to Live By, but here's a few more. (For what it's worth, my favourite bits of the exhibition were the the paste-up room curated by Ben Frost and the Foundations space curated by Phibs, which paired up old and new school graf artists ... in their density and chaos and colour, both reminded me of what the abandoned workshops might have looked like if the artists had broken into the space rather than being commissioned to be there.)

View from the Ferry onto the Island...
Everfresh No Trespassing piece...
Ironlak Bus pained by Sofles ... if only all our buses look this good!

Foundations Room
Close up on Spice piece, Foundations Room

Wall in Paste Modernism Room

Close up in Paste Modernism Room, including pieces by ELK and Ben Frost
Banksy piece ... behind glass in an exhibition room

Lee, Futura and Dondi sketches, done for Henry Chalfant ... also behind glass, but a real thrill to see


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