City Scars – Graffiti and the Fight For Urban Beauty

It is said that, art is rather objective in nature and truly is in the eye of the beholder. Yet, in most cases, differences of opinion only determine personal preferences. And it’s generally agreed that these personal preferences should never supersede the freedom that is given to the artist and their artwork. Yet, the issue of graffiti is one of the few cases which gives root to stirring dispute and contention about where these freedoms begin and end.

More often than not this form of artwork is portrayed in a negative light. In the recent past, the artists often were generally those with criminal records and/or associated with gangs. This is perhaps the reasoning for such a pessimistic outlook. Today graffiti is viewed in a much different light – one with a potentially more accepted and positive outlook as a means of social expression. Still there are limited venues and settings in which the “socially acceptable” version of this art form can be expressed. And all too often, this artwork is placed in areas deemed inappropriate and unsuitable by society. So with this, the question is posed: How can freedom of expression and urban beauty/social acceptability coincide? Obviously this question is more deeply rooted in the legality of property protection. But when such essential freedoms of expression and comment are abused from either perspective, and cross over into unwanted or unproductive areas, steps need to be taken to regain territory lost. On the side for expression, taking each situation on a case by case basis and not unilaterally treating graffiti as a “gateway crime” and all its perpetrators as hardened criminals. On the prevention/removal side, making sure that the problem is treated quickly, responsibly and, perhaps most importantly, locally.

Many city officials are now looking to advanced measures and procedures to ensure that their given areas are not blemished with unwanted and unlawful graffiti. (For example, there are now audio monitoring systems that can detect the sound from an aerosol spray can that allows law enforcement to arrest would-be “graffitists” in the act.) These steps are taken mainly to ensure the value of property as well as set a standard for the system of law in the area. And yet, what would be so bad as to look at these acts as more than just vandalism, perhaps even to a point where the social expression is necessary for healthy discussion and dissent? If this practice were more openly discussed and even guidelines for different intent created, it may be that the damaging side of this would dissipate and even methods for seeing the value and beauty of it may evolve.

As far as the situation today and the admitted need for removing what many see as a blight, who should the city look to guarantee such property protections to its people? If the financial and workforce requirements are able to be adequately met, a city could create a specific task force, whose main objective is beautification, similar to those set up in San Francisco or Los Angeles. Alternatively, there is a do-it-yourself approach including many preventative measures like special coatings or removal chemicals, which can be found by simply searching online. All are positive ways to remedy this situation. However, why not give the people’s money back to them and use with a service based within the city itself, in effect as a form of local economic development?

There are many local companies across various industries that can address this issue. For instance, professional painting companies. Contracting with one of your local professional painting companies could essentially “kill two birds with one stone.” First, prevention and response can team with supporting the local economy. Most commercial painting companies have the knowledge, technology, and equipment to successfully remove graffiti and leave no trace upon completion.

So in all reality let’s turn this “fight” between the city and its “unruly hooligans” into a means to support local business and turn the city into a true form of art. We could look at this situation two different ways: One, a hit to the budget of the city, or two, an investment back into the city. Certainly, it does take money away from tax revenues, but it also provides an opportunity for something that may be a necessary component of human values and democracy to be channeled productively and become part of our social development legacy.

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