TRACHODON 4. It appears on Cheek Teeth in a 3-part series with imagery previously unavailable for the print edition. Read Part 1 and Part 2 using the links.
When I turn a critical eye to the newly commissioned work that graces the B-line, my questions about the city's artistic position are only strengthened by my aesthetic bias: I was more impressed with the uncommissioned work that was covered on the Third Street bridge than I am by the recent installation of “welcoming” brightly colored farm animals. The fact that the bridge is covered with black paint—and not art—raises questions for me about rights of participation. The blank bridge walls, once imagined (and articulated) as canvas space, seem to create an intentional closing not only of this space, but of the manifestation of the idea of truly public art. It seems necessary, now, to understand the stakes in blackwashing, and the movement from illegitimate to legitimate art. The bridge blacks over the questions: In what ways are we as a community represented through commissioned vs. individually (and illegally) produced art? What do we lose by closing artistic space down?
I pose these questions for our small town, but am aware that the tensions and imaginations we have about graffiti are not located here, in Bloomington, alone. Still, I hesitate to put this negotiation too deeply into dialogue with the national battles over the legitimacy of aerosol artwork. Nationally, there has been a tendency to affiliate graffiti with crime, gangs and violence. “Broken Window” studies have shown that the removal of graffiti art in dangerous urban areas may correlate with a reduction in crime. I do not resist the idea that the removal of violent language or gang symbols might make consistently violent spaces less volatile. But I wonder about the application of these studies to areas like the one in which I live. The graffiti I have seen here is not part of a violent gang culture. The distance between what is stigmatized and what is experienced in my own city space draws me to consider graffiti as a medium with a number of possible manifestations. We would not assume that forms and cultures of dance, from five-year-old ballet recital, to hip-hop performance at a club, to salsa competitions, might mean the same thing. While each of these performances may come with their own attachments of social stigma, the medium of dance itself is not stigmatized. Might aerosol art also be highly situational? Our generally non-violent small midwest town has a host of problems, but it is not an easy site for stigmas about graffiti to be created and distilled around ideas of gang violence and big-city drug wars. I don't imagine that stigmas hold true even within the big city—indeed, in places like New York City there is an increasing appreciation and rise in galleries that exhibit graffiti work, which suggests that some of the work in that space is something more than dangerous. Our town's distance from both the gallery and the gangs forces a rethinking of what is “known” about graffiti art and how it might be interpreted within diverse communities. And how it might be interpreted in ours.
It seems that what a unique display of graffiti art might express is ignored for how graffiti has been socially addressed. Our recently established “Graffiti Task Force” in Bloomington has been reviewing other graffiti task forces in other cities across the country. Links to some of the more successful city projects are hyperlinked on our city government webpage. Graffiti task forces work (often collectively) to name the terms by which graffiti can be interpreted across our national space. The scripting of stigma, of pre-conceived meaning, refuses in some ways the possibility for individual aesthetic judgment—a critical response to art. If we come to understand all graffiti as vandalism, we forget to ask the questions: Can we make choices about aesthetics in our city space? Is there a way to understand graffiti in terms of our aesthetic judgment—instead of understanding it as always profane, dangerous, violent, or fear-producing? What is art to us?
Commissioned murals appear along the trail I still walk from home to school. Most recently, a piece titled “Our Hometown” was produced by children from the Boys and Girls Club summer program. The production of a (paint brushed) mural created by a community group is one of the major recommendations propositioned by graffitihurts.org (a national graffiti removal and prevention website that is listed multiple times on the city government website). “Our Hometown” is a long stretch of plywood boards painted to depict a scene of wilderness surrounding a small city. The project coordinator talked about ways that they worked with bright, simple colors to help “keep the mural looking child-like and vivid.” This language echoes Michaelsen's; the work is "welcoming,” “inclusive.” It is of note that while these are the desirable terms for the “art district,” these are not terms that I am used to hearing about art. This strange re-visioning extends also to material and artist: The use of plywood and house paint are presented as “cost effective” and therefore ideal; project coordinators (but not individual artists) are given credit for the works. It becomes clear that the idea is not to replace graffiti art with something that is more legitimately artistic, but perhaps more legitimately in line with the city's agenda.
“Our Hometown” is one of two murals currently advertised on the city website (the other was also produced by a group of children with simple materials and a child-like aesthetic). While I cannot advocate against collectivity and collaboration in art spaces, nor against projects that support our youth, I still come to wonder how the collaborative “welcome” of unidentified (child) artists might represent, in the context of an “art district,” what we come to expect not only of our community, but of art. It is also of note: the two child-produced murals are the only ones listed on the city website, though there are a number of other murals and art pieces that appear (and often disappear) along the B-line.
I met with a local photographer that is working to capture Midwest graffiti art before it disappears. Erin Marshall spoke critically of the city's position on graffiti. She claimed that uncensored artwork produced by community members may be more relevant to the community than artwork that has been shaped by the city government's agenda. Marshall also questioned how the space is being re-claimed, not only with blackwashing and playful art installations, but also with increased advertising. Sales images and business signs are increasingly cluttering the visible space in the arts district, and there seems to be no resistance to this eye sore. Marshall questions if this is relevant to the community, and if it is, what sort of “community” we are after. In her opinion, the proliferation of “advertisement is more harmful than the graffiti ever was.”
But we are in the business of art now: there are more funds available for business relocation grants and loans or business enhancement grants than there are for art in the new “arts district.” The city does not resist increased corporate representations, signs, and advertisements. It is clear, as the mayor himself has stated, that the development of the trail was “the most significant economic development project on the city's agenda.” The city's privileging is not to those who produce art, but to those who will pay to have businesses in the arts district. This is not an un-city-like way of handling the social order—but it becomes complicated when city money allows the concept of art to be co-opted, shaped, refused, and criminalized. And we must come together, those of us who live in this broad “arts district,” and question what the language used to articulate ideas about public art, and the actual performance and erasure of art, might say about who we are and what we can be to one another.
“Canvases are disappearing,” Marshall says, and with them, the possibility for a free artistic exchange between members of the community. The bridge is painted over, painted black. Still the graffiti persists, quick and afraid, stencils and tags are painted each night and covered over by morning. On my way to work, I walk over the bridge, patched over with squares of black, wet paint. City positions are created to continue this process of erasure. A camera is installed on top of a building facing the bridge. The Graffiti Task Force makes policy proposals. Tax dollars are diverted to graffiti clean up and path policing. City web pages explicitly link graffiti to criminal action, and provide the list of violations under which artists can be tried. By all measures of what I see—in city documents, in black paint, in cameras and committees—the city does not have its ear to the questions I still have. The newspapers celebrate the new mural, “Our Hometown.” Another section of the trail is opened, and people march over the Third Street bridge (painted over that morning) to the next ribbon cutting. The Mayor makes a speech. The art is erased, while the city's language and sweet dreams emerge in a feedback loop.
Still, yesterday I saw geese, stenciled on the bridge.
Nicol Stavlas is an essayist and poet. Her work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth River, Canary, Flyway, Blue Lake Review, Third Wednesday and Willows Wept, among others. She blogs at Last Maple.