Charleston graffiti: Fighting the good fight

Image by Flickr user inkognitoh Image by 20090112-graffiti.jpg This James Island graffiti has had much critical acclaim.

Is graffiti so rampart and destructive in Charleston that it warrants an editorial from the Post and Courier?

Judging by Monday’s paper, yes, it is.

The editorial expressed concern and frustration with graffiti, saying it diminishes a visitor’s impression of our fine city; that Charleston’s aesthetic propriety is undermined.

Local citizens and visitors who want to appreciate the beautiful built environment have to see it marred with childish swaths of black or blue paint. The message they get is more than "ugly." They see graffiti and think lawlessness, gangs and disrespect. They think the police don't care.

That’s undoubtedly true for some tourists. But others, like some residents of Charleston, consider graffiti an art form that defines place and character.

I don’t think graffiti – or street art, to use a less maligning term -- should come near Charleston’s historic architecture or property. These places, too, define our place and character. They are an essential part of our culture and should be preserved.

But I do think street art is acceptable. I think it is creative and demonstrates a part of our city’s character, albeit a part that is not advertised on tourism brochures.

Surely the city of Charleston wants to support its artists. Surely it recognizes that not every creative individual wants to hang work in an art gallery on Broad Street. The question then is where to allow street art.

Some suggest that cities can curb the problem by providing a place for graffiti "artists" to paint and scribble.

Unfortunately, such programs in other cities have backfired. They imply that graffiti is indeed an art form instead of the property crime that it is. Rather than collecting graffiti at an approved location, it encourages graffiti where it is not welcome. Huntington Beach, Calif., saw graffiti triple after the city provided graffiti friendly zones.

It’s plain to see why these programs do not work. A street artist works under cover. It is part of the experience. The process itself stems from rebellion and from an artist using his environment as his canvass. When graffiti is contained, when it is limited to a space and supported by authoritative figures, it loses part of its message.

Imagine putting a landscape painter in a blue room with a round yellow light and telling him to paint the sun and sky. Sure, he could do it; but would the painting capture the true essence of his muse, or the appropriate tones of light? Would the painter feel confirmed in his approach, or fraudulent?

Now go tell the street artist you’ve got a city-sanctioned place for his doodles.

It seems the Post and Courier is determined. Street art was also addressed in a January 5th article.

For many, graffiti — especially the crude, boring, monochromatic scribbling so common in Charleston — creates a visceral sense that the city is lawless, a place where people with spray paint can mark their presence with the same ease as a dog passing by a tree.

I don’t understand how scribbling, especially scribbling that’s innocuous as a passing dog’s pee, elicits lawlessness. I mean, what are talking about here, graffiti’s negative impact or a journalist’s artistic opinion?

And this is where the line is drawn. What if our painter in the room broke free? What if he left the room, but forgot his canvass? Here he is, walking downtown Charleston, feeling inspired, ready to create, but without a canvass. He takes up paint and brush, looks at the sun and sky and goes to work painting a likeness on the side of a building.

What happens now? Is this a charming addition to the Charleston experience, or is it vulgar and criminal? What if the building’s owner doesn’t like the sun?

It’s a question of taste. Street art, like everything else in a democratic society, has detractors and advocates. For the P&C to make a sweeping generalization that says Charleston’s street art is “crude, boring, monochromatic scribbling” is as oblivious as me saying St. John’s church could really use a giant Ishmael tag.

Lastly, it’s an issue of money and manpower. The P&C reports that the CPD needs thirty hours a week to remove Charleston’s graffiti. That sounds like a lot, especially when an officer could be fighting crime, disbanding the “gangs” responsible for Charleston’s lawlessness (the article mentions downtown, not North Charleston).

But if you look at it another way, that officer’s workload keeps him busy, on the street, employed. I don’t want to suggest I know how to best distribute the CPD’s manpower. I’m suggesting the dividing line between appropriate art and street art is a fine one, one that will continue to be debated for a long time.

We all love Charleston and claim it as our own. But Charleston does not belong to tourists. It does not belong to those against, or those for street art. It belongs to everybody. This bothers some people.

Only one thing is for certain. Street artists will paint. Those who oppose it will arrest, repaint, and write hardheaded editorials.

I say keep fighting the good fight, no matter your side. Charleston is a better city for it.

You can check out Monday's editorial here and the earlier article here.