Thursday, October 13, 2016

Hemispheric Conversations: Urban Art Project, Public Debate

Last I wrote, I was finishing field note writing for a research trip to León. This past week (10/6-10/8) I, along with my collaborators (Oreen Cohen and Shane Pilster) co-organized a set of events designed to spur conversations about the relationships between Chicago, Pittsburgh, and León in terms of urban histories, graffiti practices, and post-industrial and hemispheric exchanges. The first event was a public debate, co-sponsored with Pitt's William Pitt Debating Union around the them: "Should Pittsburgh have legal walls?" The second was a day-long symposium bringing together scholars and artists from Milwaukee, Chicago, Pittsburgh and Mexico to discuss the theme of post-industrial graffiti histories and futures.

In what follows I offer a summary of the debate, hoping to create some themes for further discussion at our next set of events in the spring, a public lecture by Dr. Jessica Pabón about feminist masculinities in graffiti and the hip hop diaspora, and a series of free workshops for youth led by Chicago artist Stef Garland and Leonese artists Kif, Nikkis, and Wes in collaboration with Pittsburgh organizations and artists (TBD). I will soon write a follow-up post about the symposium.

 Participants included Detective Alphonso Sloan from the Graffiti Task Force; Shane Pilster, graphic designer, Urban Art Tour organizer at Carrie Furnaces, and graffiti artist; Mike Mook, tattoo artist, father, and former graffiti artist responsible for the “Mook Law”; Steve Root, a retired psychotherapist and social worker, who is a volunteer with the South Side Graffiti Council and the South Side Community Council Graffiti Watch (GW); Jason Mendez, our moderator, an educator, author, and interdisciplinary theater artist and parent, who is part of the project Sons of the Boogie; and myself, an Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh with a research program exploring transnational legal graffiti. We also were aided by the efforts of the William Pitt Debating Union public debaters; Christ Talbot, Toey Yi, and Aaron Hill, who asked some very smart and incisive questions.

We began with each panelist offering a short introductory statement. Jason Mendez discussed his work with Sons of the Boogie, which included famous and foundational writer Phase 2, who was a master of styles and pioneer in bubble letters, which later provided a platform for artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat. Importantly, Mendez explained, Phase 2 distinguishes between the term writing and graffiti. He would call graffiti the ‘g-word’ instead preferring writing which points to the communicative, aesthetic, and public richness of the art form. This is a positioned sustained by many in the aerosol writing community, for example, Desi Wome in the Bay Area. Mendez continued to discuss Phase 2’s role in creating the first graffiti zine, International Graffiti Times, which explored the essence and internal dynamics of the culture. He is currently working on a memoir about growing up in the South Bronx, how it figured as home, and the current risks of gentrification as many lose home and history, or of representational elisions, in such media artifacts like “The Get Down,” which, Mendez cautioned, romanticizes the 1970s and 1980s in the Bronx.

Detective Sloan opened by highlighting the fact that we was a writers between the ages of 13 to 21 or 23, stopping when he began working for the city as a police officer. He argued that he supports urban art, and public art, which can support knowledge and education. Pittsburgh had a legal wall in the past, he argued, along the Eliza Furnace Trail, otherwise known as a the Jail Trail. The hope was to offer artists an outlet and to contain graffiti. “It had the opposite effect,” Sloan lamented, explaining that in the early 2000s Pittsburgh saw a spike in graffiti, and artists would come to paint the permission wall but would also “paint everything on their way in, and on their way out.”  He noted that he respects artists like Basquiat, Ecko, and Keith Haring who learn how to transition into legal and commercial venues, like graphic design.

Steve Root opened by defining the South Side Community Council’s work, and how they began to deal with issues of graffiti. He isolated “long term working class property owners” as the primary victims of graffiti vandalism, and that such writing functiosn to devealuetheir property values, and there is a legal system that fails to hold writers responsible.  The Graffiti Watch (GW) seeks to take responsibility as a community and send the message that the South Side is valuable. Preventing vandalism, Root continued, is an ongoing process, and he had no illusions that graffiti could ever be eliminated. Instead, it is a dialectical relationship with taggers, an ongoing and sustained effort. He noted, however, that through conversations with Shane Pilster and learning more about the culture, that graffiti involves intense feelings of place, and empowerment, and being creative such that the current polarized relationship between writers and GW does not accomplish goals of inclusion. He was interested in the Rivers of Steel project, and had also studies legal walls in Toronto, Montreal, Quebec and Wynwood Walls. Moreover, he acknowledged that buffing is its own form of graffiti and censorship. It takes place in the idiom of graffiti, arguably. Instead, he was moving towards a model of ongoing conversations with the goal of aachieving mutual respect. In that spirit, GW has enlarged its focus. They want to support creativiting and inclusion, to celebrate diversity, perhaps in the manner in which property owners have transformed the Fox way on 20th and 21st street.

Shane Pilster discussed how he arrived in Pittsburgh in 2004 and soon after was arrested for illegal graffiti. He had started writing in San Francisco between 1998 and 1997. He was required to do a lot of community service, the result of which is that he now considers himself more of a “reformed artist” and has been meeting with community groups. This point was later developed in the debate as a discussion about more effective penalties—the idea was raised that community service was particularly important because it helps the writer actually know the communities that they painted in/on, perhaps fostering more mutual understanding. Shane emphasized that the history of graffiti is not just tags but it is an art form that spreads through spaces, and creates opportunities. However, in Pittsburgh, people don’t get to see a lot of really aesthetically elaborate pieces. This is partially due to a lack of legal walls. There might be one in Homewood, but that is it. Instead, to foster dialogue between writers and communities it is important to have several locations, an art walk even, giving a voice to all sides: the public, business owners, and artists. This, he concluded, offers a middle ground that can work with everyone.

Mike Mook spoke next. He started writing in 1998 and was extremely prolific until 2001. He was arrested for lots of writing, and has since stopped doing illegal graffiti. Now he serves as a sort of liaison between active writers and offering them legal options. He spoke of his aspiration for the South Side to turn itno something like Wynwood Walls at Art Basel.

I spoke last, speaking about the importance of graffiti for youth expression, and of public art for democratic culture. I spent a couple of minutes why
a)    the city of Pittsburgh relies on broken windows theory to justify its anti-graffiti posture
b)   How this concept is flawed, and even dangerous.
I think I will dedicate a separate post to elaborating this argument, particularly with regard to Pittsburgh.

After the introductions Jason Mendez led a structured discussion. He first asked about the stigmas that writers face. Shane remarked that “most people see the ugly stuff” and don’t understand that writing culture has many facets, such that the tagging is largely the “fame based” part of it. Most of the public, he lamented, are not educated about the “better end of things.” They don’t understand that some street art can actually increase property value- like that of Barry McGee. He also lamented how the media will lump together writing with gang graffiti, or political graffiti, assuming all are the same, whether done by a toy or a vandal or someone else.  Mook pointed out that graffiti is a “broad term” that doesn’t capture the nuances of the diversity of hand styles out there.

Mendez also asked Detective Sloan about stereotypes about law enforcement that he encounters. Sloan remarked: “There is a sketchy line between public art and graffiti art—you can have public art on walls, like the Sprout Fund murals, and we won’t prosecute that. We do prosecute people who paint without permission.” He also noted that there are ordinances for people who allow graffiti to remain or occur on their property. There is a seven year statute of limitations for graffiti crimes.

Mook also spoke to the question about treating writers with no priors like violent offenders, and here we had a really interesting discussion about proportionality and alternative options for legal response. He pointed out how, when a lot of young writers are prosecuted, they are pressured to admit to the felony charges to avoid jail time, not really understanding how that felony record will impact them later in life. Shane added that it is a proportionality question, that often writers can get more jail time than violent offenders. A better alternative, he suggested, is for writers to work in the communities where they painted rather than being sent to jail, because in working with the communities, they will be better understood as human beings and neighbors.

Detective Sloan responded that they try to “work with” offenders. And if the offender is willing to work with them, and is remorseful they do not push for felonies. “100 misdemeanors does not add up to a felony,” he emphasized, but instead pointed to a “formula” they had developed based on the Graffiti Blasters’ costs, which is that damage is $300 for the first square foot and $50 for every subsequent square foot of damage. We learned later that these fines are higher if the paint is higher up and harder to reach (to clean). Once there is over $4,000 square feet of damage it becomes a felony. Felonies are usually applied, he said, when it is a repeat offender. Moreover, they do not prosecute for every piece done, they usually stop at a certain point because they could reach the millions soon, so, for example if a writer has done “75 pieces we will usually charge them for up to 50 and then stop.” GEMS, a young CMU student who was arrested months earlier had initially been fined over $100,000, but they negotiated the fine down to $38,000 and reduced his felonies to misdemeanors. Montana, on the other hand, who did not work with the police and and had re-painted when on probation is going to be finedn up to $700,000, because of lot of damage was to private homes.

Responding to Detective Sloan’s claim that the Eliza Furnace Trail wall caused an increase in graffiti both Shane and Mook pointed out that there was a spike in graffiti all over the US, because it was a time in the early 2000s where instead of trying to go “all city” writers were vying to paint “all country,” to get their name up everywhere. So there was a lot of travel for the explicit purpose of bombing. Though permission walls wont stop all graffiti, Shane added, by having older more established writers painting there it functions as a draw, where younger writers will want to watch, learn, and work with them. Back in the day there was less direct communication, mostly only Myspace.

Mendez also asked Sloan about being an artist of color when he did graffiti. Sloan noted that when he was painting, especially along the Busway between 1983 and 1984, most writers were young black kids, but also that there was a code and they did not paint on private property. The Stanton Heights Mall was one of the first places where they did graffiti. Mook added that class differences matter, because the impact of being prosecuted hurts poorer youth more than wealthier ones.

One of the Pitt Debaters, Chris, asked Shane and Mook if, given that a lot of writers see graffiti as rebellion, will legal walls satisfy that need and the thrill-aspect? Both laughed and said no. Root added that “illegal graffiti has a purpose” enabling a “sense of belonging and a means of expression.” Shane and Mook also addedthat it is not all or nothing- his work with Rivers of Steel since 2012 shows how dialogue is key, and once they opened space and spoke with writer there was much less dialogue- only 10 instances of vandalism in 4 years.

Debater Toey asked about proof for the broken windows thesis, and how Sloan distinguishes between graffiti and art. An interesting distinction that emerged was that, according to Sloan, anything done in aerosol could be considered graffiti, even if it was image-based. Moreover, he cited a city ordinance that bans the deployment of large letter-based work in public.  He did not respond to the question about broken windows theory.

Aaron asked about how de-stigmatize graffiti. Many pointed to education, Root said that it was important to know the difference between the “junk” and “genuine art”; Shane references his work with Hip Hop on Lock, using educaton to bring publics, communities and schools together. Sloan noted that he doesn’t hate the art, he just hates where it is painted. Root argued for a policy and procedure liaison with respect to graffiti in each neighborhood, because, he argued, each neighborhood has special needs and their character and culture are distinct. He called for communities to take responsibility by addressing the big picture: race, class, and the development process, appreciating different motives.

In this debate panelists raised interesting questions about the difference between “clean” and “messy” walls, activating implicit questions about what the value (or threat) of “messy” walls are. Moreover, it pointed to how the law, as written, offers crude distinctions between “graffiti” and “art” mainly based on medium (aerosol vs. brush) and style (letters vs. images). Of course, these distinctions do not acknowledge the complexity and nuance of contemporary writing culture where aerosol can be used to create images, and where (as it has always been the case) hand styles, lettering, involves high levels of artistry and skill. Finally, what was interesting was how the current law incentivizes property owners to act aggressively against graffiti because they get fined for having it on their walls. This element of the Pittsburgh ordinance (last updated in April 2016) pits property owners against writers, making dialogue or collaboration less likely. The ban on text, too, acts as a barrier for permission and commissioned works on private laws. Crucially, the law is not fixed. It is made by humans, and it can be changed by humans. The question is, what kind of social model do we want it to reflect? What kind of art cultures do we want to create?

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Leon Guanajuato: Voces Ciudadaños en Aerosol, Research Update

I meant to write this post two weeks ago but my partner’s accident and our move to a new house has thrown things behind. So this is the first time I’ve had a moment to try to recover some of the wonder and elation that I was feeling at the end of the trip: new things discovered and yet lots more to uncover.

I was in Leon 23 April to 7 May, a two week stretch that allowed me to conduct 23 interviews, go to a graffiti festival, see some works in progress and a “street art” class, and conduct a couple of mini-recorridos. I have to say first that none of this would be possible without the organizational finesse of Karina Kif and her friend Vincente who helped to navigate me from place to place, pesero to oruga, chaperoned me in some of the more conflictual neighborhoods where it would not be prudent to go alone, and helped me out with some of the slang that went over my head in interviews. And of course the rest of the writers whose stories form the backbone of this project. I also spent a good chunk of time at the Archivo Municipale Hemeroteca, going through over 30 folios of the daily paper AM. This trip I was looking at papers during the first Ciudad de Murales project, roughly December 2009 to October 2011, tracing whether and how the descriptions of writers changed during this period of official legal graffiti support.

I learned a lot, but here I’ll just highlight some of the themes that I encountered in interviews, and some of the surprises I experienced in the archives.

One insight that this trip reinforced is that more than the testimony of a few individuals, this art practice in León is a resource for expressing collective fears, hopes, and processes of reshaping public space to be more accessible to a wider range of citizens. Oral history interviews testify to this fact. Drunk, a writer who started in the late 1990s noted: “Graffiti is important because you feel it in the heart. It is something fantastic. … it is a phenomenon and a form of expression that the government doesn’t give us. It is something you see and say, ‘wow! no manches!(I don’t believe it!)” (2016) His brother, Cuate, also noted, “graffiti is a way of life, not a [mere] past time,” and allows him to criticize government practices, notably, how they instrumentalize street culture to gain popularity. He recalled: “The Casa de Cultura had this logo of a spray can dressed as a b-boy, so I would do graffiti using that same symbol to make fun of them, because they give us the very tools to mock them…there is corruption, they don’t listen to us, and they don’t care, so graffiti is a form to express this frustration” (Cuate 2016). Cuate showed one of his critical pieces: a drawing he made around 2002/2001 of Vincente Fox and George Bush touching figures like the Michaelangelo’s Man Touching God, but they were suspended over La Frontera with dozens of little crosses on the Ciudad Juarez side. In a similar fashion, old school writer Crook recalled using graffiti to criticize disingenuous governance practices: “During the elections I wrote this phrase, ‘Give us tortillas not PAN de mentiras’ meaning, the lies that the Partido de Acción Nacional offer” (Crook 2016). A younger writer named Sabio noted that graffiti and hip-hop culture is “an important alternative to drugs or gang membership” (2016). Graffiti also is a means of consciousness-raising about larger issues. Warner, an old school writer who participated in the protests against Zero Tolerance explained: “Graffiti can help society because it provides a message, can energize the souls of people.” His work, he explained, “often includes messages about respect for the natural world and the environment, as well as criticism of police repression saying ‘too many pigs’” (2016). La Kausa, a young writer and organizer of a legal graffiti expo held in the conflict-ridden neighborhood San Francisco noted at the Criminal Company Expo on May 1: “Events like this are important because they give an opportunity for people to see graffiti not as graffiti but as arte it is a way to express ourselves: the problems, and the pieces express what we feel. Graffiti is the only way to get the problems out and you can reflect on the work on the wall” (2016). In a similar vein, Espos described graffiti as “therapy” (2016). Painting on a crumbling wall across from a small library and large market across the wide and dusty road Wreck, one of the earliest writers in León agreed: “Graffiti is a means of expression. Many times people don’t have the ability to express themselves, and graffiti gives people this means through letters…[it] can help society by making it better, opening spaces, not sure if can change drugs or delinquency but as a means of expression for youth it is good. Some use it to stay out of drugs or trouble” (2016). This idea was supported by a young writer named Nespo (2016). Keim, a middle school art teacher and old school writer noted: “My students in San Marcos, a conflict filled neighborhood, they often use graffiti as an alternative to drugs etc. It is something that the gangs use, but I am trying to show them that there is another opportunity to explore, it lets them leave violence behind.” (2016) Lalo Camarena, Subdirector of the Municipal Youth Institute explained that graffiti s a “a form of expression for what the youth feel, a way to deal with the problems that face adolescent identity, the search for acceptance…now many are making a living from graffiti, channeling it.” (2016) It is crucial that the government and broader society understands the way that graffiti is a form of expression, Keim explained, because otherwise there are “inhumane” policies like Zero Tolerance where youth are judged only based on appearances and are treated with indignity (2016).

Another is some thinking about the affective dynamics of aesthetic practice that cuts across genres. The night I arrived in León was the screening of a film about the Leonese skate scene sponsored by “Hey Dog!” shoes. The film showed snapshots of skaters in action, using surprising surfaces and taking intense bodily risksin some ways to me a dance-like extension of graffiti’s appropriation of a variety of urban surfaces. But what I was more interested in was the way in which in the process of making practitioners when they are in a moment of flow practice absorption, what Sedgewick marks as a kind of screen or fold that one’s attention or interest makes between oneself and the world, yet, it can lead to a blush because it is a public performance of such absorption.

Third, this trip focused pretty heavily on talking to members of the old school, writers who started in the late 1990s and who experienced Zero Tolerance. Through these interviews I learned more about the dynamics of the early community, how Miercoles Tagger (Tagger Wednesdays) was an important social institution, but not for all, for instance, crews like BR and autonomous writers did not really partake.
BR Crew. Graffiti Expo San Francisco. 2016.
Different communication technology, unsurprisingly, also mediated the structure and frequency of meetings writers would have—many described trajectories of cross-city walks where one would pick up different writers along the way. Mexico City was a key stylistic influence and early writers self-published zines with copies and clippings of graffiti work they saw on trips to DF. Moreover, I learned more about the scope of Zero Tolerance, which was a campaign against graffiti carried out not only in the newspapers but on the airwaves and TVs—writers like Biers still remembered the jingle in its entirety. “They played it on the radio every day” he remarked.

Nikkis and Biers. En proceso. 2016.
Fourth, the dynamic or relationship between image based work and text based work resurfaced in interesting ways. Bone commented on how the tag is viewed with suspicion or disgust precisely because it is a trace of an individual—it is impossible to repress the singularity of the tag. In this way the tag works against norms of liberal universality wherein public space is not meant to reflect the race, class, sex or other particularities of groups. Obversely, Keim argued that the tag becomes a word-image, empty of signification. She noted of her style: “It is simple letters. Old English. We call them Letras Goticas, or really Letras Cholas—no, seriously! My art teacher even called them that. Just letters and colors. I don’t do characters or cartoons. These letters when repeated become a symbol an image they lose all signification and then it means whatever the viewer experiences aesthetically and that is art—its not important what it means only what it provokes. For instance, Cope2, who does these bombas de chicle (bubble letters) his name doesn’t mean anything, but all of the youngsters in my school know it and can repeat it, and so can I.” These statements provide interesting texture for thinking about one of the larger research questions of the project, which is how graffiti complicates, claims and reimagines public space and what a right to the city means.

2012 work, Las Molinas.

2012 work, Las Molinas.

2012 work, Las Molinas.

2012 work, Las Molinas.

2012 work, Las Molinas.

2012 work, Las Molinas.

2012 work, Las Molinas.

2012 work, Las Molinas.

2012 work, Las Molinas.

2012 work, Las Molinas.

Author unknown. Las Molinas. 2016.

Las Molinas, 2016.

Chuen, Las Molinas, 2016.

Shady, Dafne, Sen. Instituto Municipale de Juventud. 2016.

Kif &Shady, 2015.

Shady, 2015.

Chuen, 2015.

I also spoke with Professor Hectór Gómez Vargas, a sociologist who focuses on youth identity in the Guanajuato region. He offered some crucial historical and contextual insights about the history of the city as it relates to youth culture. For instance, he marked the year 1989 as a key turning point for the city as it entered a more global market. Between the 1950s and the 1980s youth culture “exploded” in León, influenced by U.S. cultural objects like the films Rebel Without a Cause and The Warriors (indeed, when I first met Nikkis he was wearing a Warriors t-shirt). In the 1970s Beatlemania took hold of León and “the city went crazy, they didn’t know what to do [about the phenomena]. This is the subject of Dr. Gómez Varga’s current research project, what he views as “an incendiary period for moral panic” and such 1970s anxieties, he believes, shapes how youth are treated today. Another key offshoot from 1989 is the legacy of the Panista government, marked both by corruption and more business-person-oriented models of governance (this also explains the harsh Zero Tolerance background, because there are tight ties between businesses and the state) but also social programs that draw attention to things not previously treated by the government (women, youth, etc.) They did three key things in this early period: a larger and more serious municipal archive, more funding for the Cultural Institute of Leon (ICL), and founded the Casa de Juventud. In his view, early graffiti (pre-1990s) was meant “to insult” with phrases like “chinga tu madre” (fuck your mother), later graffiti was about claiming existence and identity, “Aqui estoy” and is more of an international formation.

Zero tolerance, he noted, was a Panista program, and it took place at the time where government entities and businesses were trying to open Guanajuato to new markets in Korea, North America, Japan, Italy, Germany—trying to attract investors. They were also expanding the Mexican art scene—trying to create economic development in Leon there was a big tourism push, so they developed more cultural manifestations, night life, Fox Sports. They were opening micro busineses for youth. And the University of Guanajuato expanded a lot, and it became possible to have carreras (majors) like Arte and Cultura. There was also a move to recuperate the historic center and promote nightlife for consumption. Zero tolerance, given this context, becomes more interesting because it throws into relief how graffiti is positioned during this period as not fine art but instead a “hygiene and safety” issue.

AM Piece, 2010.
A lot of this was corroborated in the archives, namely, that graffiti writers are dignified as artists only when they make interventions into cultural patrimony and fine art, with the Cine de Oro (Golden Age of Cinema) mural painted in a tunnel of the Malecón and the Bicentenio murals, also painted in 2010. These murals are lauded (in opinion pieces, no less!) because they constitute legible contributions to official culture. Another interesting moment was the first reference to graffiti writers as artists (versus vandals) which occurs in a short article criticizing police violence against artists at a graffiti gallery show. It turns out the gallery was Wes’, the first in Mexico, and one of the artists assaulted by the police was  Nikkis (both go unnamed in the AM piece). Is victimage what admits one into the polity? Is violence the price of admission?

Finally, another evolution of the project, beyond the book, is to initiate a cultural exchange program between my home city of Pittsburgh and León. There are important and interesting parallels between the history of graffiti as an urban problem in León and its urban “boom” and the conjuncture facing Pittsburgh now. During 2015-2016 I have noticed a sharp increase in anti graffiti activities, but also a kind of demonization and repression of youth, both by the city and in public discourse. Consider, for instance, that in a local neighborhood conversation website, NextDoor, that the arrest of a 20-year-old Latino graffiti writer is hailed as a great success and that multiple adults call for him to be punished with “several years in jail!” dismissing any concern about the role that graffiti might play as a means of public communication. I’ve been told by the curator of Pittsburgh’s industrial heritage urban arts program, Shane Pilster, that such vehemence is largely due to a lack of exposure: there have not been substantive conversations about graffiti (and the possibility of legal graffiti) in Pittsburgh. Indeed, when a City Paper front page raised the issue, the comments sections were full of anger about “hooligans” and “vandalism.” To that end, I believe that the artists in León who have been negotiating public discourse and educating non-graffiti-writer publics about graffiti for the past seven to ten years have much to teach us in Pittsburgh about how to craft spaces for youth voice that can work in concert with institutions, or creatively work outside of them. Thus, as part of a broader hemispheric exchange project about art, social change, industrial history, and hemispheric movements, I am working with a collaborator, public artist Oreen Cohen, to bring Leonese artists to Pittsburgh to work with Pittsburgh artists, participate in a symposium on graffiti history, culture, and futures, and lead workshops for K-12 Latin@ youth from Pittsburgh’s public schools. The Municipal Youth Institute of León is excited about an extended cultural exchange, so this would be the initial step in that direction.

** a hearty thanks to Villanova's WFI Research Grant for funding, as well as the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh and the Hewlett International Grant at the University of Pittsburgh.