Where does Street Art stop and Vandalism begin?

eltooA man and a woman were arrested last night while tagging the vacant Smith Furniture building on Washington Street. Many in the business community are obviously pleased about this. The feeling, however, isn’t unanimous. The following note, sent to the Director of the Ypsilanti Downtown Development Authority today, comes from James Marks, the owner of the screen-printing shop VG Kids:

I suggest we pause for a moment and take a real look at our priorities and vision for downtown.

We talk about being bold, taking risks, being unique, and supporting our alternative culture. And yet here we are applauding the arrest of 2 community members applying those goals in a very real, tangible, and in my opinion, valuable manner.

The two people who were arrested are not thougtless destroyers of property, and it’s important to distinguish their work from those that are. They are artists, and if all our talk of ‘we’re not Maybury’ is true, they’re on our side.

They understand and accept the risks they take to better our city. But as it will ultimately be the stakeholders who will benefit from their investment, it would be wise to show, if not outward appreciation, the occasional blind eye.

It’s a complicated issue. Personally, I detest what I perceive to be vandalism. But, at the same time, I really like the tags I consider to be art. It’s subjective. Ypsi has a vibrant tagging and sticker culture, and, I know I’ll take a lot of shit for saying so, but, for the most part, I appreciate it. I don’t think it belongs on residences, or on the fronts of commercial buildings, but I enjoy most of what I see in alleys, on sidewalks, and on the backs of signs around town.

I think there’s a place of it. I think it’s legitimate art. And, I agree with James, that it, to some extent, is the price you pay for living in a vibrant, young community in which new ideas are constant percolating. And, given the amount of sanctioned advertising that we’re all forced to accept and consume each and every day, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that we the people be given an opportunity to advertise what it is that we find worth promoting.

Why is the wolf image above vandalism, and the liquor ad on Michigan Avenue OK? Because they pay money, does that make it right?

I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think we as a community can just come out and say, across the board, that tagging, stickering and posting flyers is vandalism. I know it’s a slippery slope, but I think we’ve got to find some kind of compromise that we can all live with.

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  1. Oliva
    Posted March 26, 2009 at 8:11 pm | Permalink

    Actually, I DO have an idea. Why don’t some of you graffiti supporters put your energy into helping promote a skate park with a wall for people to create their art in a way that is harmless to others. Water Works Park is the perfect place for such a thing. Disc Golf, skate boarding, and street art.

    I like a lot of what you said, galan–got me to stop and think. (Love BA’s comment following it.) I also like the skatepark idea. My husband is planning on taking lottery winnings and making a skate park, water park, etc., over at Motor Wheel. The plan has some holes still. Could be very cool, though.

    I do sometimes get less-than-practical here, a temptation of comments made off the cuff, as on a blog. I would love to hereby absolve myself of all future illogical, unfair, or stupid comments–as well as any capitulating later. Ha.

    It’s a problem, some of the best messages are on building walls and overpasses. But it’s not fair if it’s on someone’s building who doesn’t want it or a blight to many people, what have you. Graffiti, what a thorny issue.

  2. Posted March 26, 2009 at 8:37 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad to see a vibrant discussion happening– just a couple of facts I’ve picked up in the last few days to add to the situation:

    1. The owner of the Smith Building had a series of incidents with thoughtless, and sometimes offensive material sprayed onto his bricks in highly visible places. This is what prompted him to stay up until 1, when he’s reported to have heard the rattle of a spray can, alter the cops, and the chase/arrest occurred.

    2. The two people who were tagging were not the ones who had damaged the Smith Building. They were stenciling in the already painted, tagged, stickered, etc. alley of the Elbow room. They do not paint huge scrawls across businesses, but have a respect for the property, the surface, and businesses.

    3. A few years back, a local property owner’s downtown building was stenciled in an unobtrusive, artful manner, and he liked it. He got a ticket from the city for not cleaning the graffiti. The owner took the ticket to court, saying that he considered it art, and thought it added to his property. He was forced to pay the ticket, and remove the graffiti.

    And for the record– I hope to go to work tomorrow and see some 10 foot golden arches on VGKids. It would be totally reactionary, malicious, and thus completely different than the kind of street art I think we should be supporting, however:

    It would mean I live in a town of people that cares enough to take things into their own hands, to stand up and get things done. To stop waiting for someone else to solve our problems or fight for what we want, or have another meeting and then another so we can blur everything into mediocrity.

    And honestly, that’s what draws me to Ypsi. Golden arches on VG or not, I think we are that town.

  3. Posted March 26, 2009 at 9:29 pm | Permalink

    “2. The two people who were tagging were not the ones who had damaged the Smith Building. They were stenciling in the already painted, tagged, stickered, etc. alley of the Elbow room. They do not paint huge scrawls across businesses, but have a respect for the property, the surface, and businesses.”

    So some people can break the law, presumably as long as they are white and educated and in your cool club.

  4. Ol' E Cross
    Posted March 26, 2009 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

    James M.,

    Thank you, first, for adding details and perspective.

    1) That explains why I walked around the Smith Bldg three times and couldn’t find the wolf. All I could find was traces of bulbous letters on white brick that obviously had been attempted to be but could not be fully removed. You describe that at thoughtless. I tend to agree. Others, commenting above, would appear to applaud it.

    2) I think the Elbow Room is ideal for graffiti. I think it benefits the Elbow. Which brings us to point three…

    3) I’ve been waiting for all of the discussion of protecting personal property to drift, rightly, into the rights of property owners to do what they want with their property. If it’s wrong to paint on someone else’s property, doesn’t it follow that it’s wrong to tell someone that they can’t paint what they want on their own? (I’m not looking for a simple yes or no, but it seems relevant to the discussion, don’t you think?)

    Finally, a couple parting shots:

    1) It would be totally reactionary, malicious, and thus completely different than the kind of street art I think we should be supporting

    I’d like to challenge the idea that deviant (among other forms) shouldn’t be reactionary. And I think some great art has been malicious. Which begs your question … what should we support?

    2) Since when is art something has to have popular support? I have to react, too, to Jean’s, and others, notion that “It’s good for business.” The whole idea that we should accept graffiti art because it’s “good for business” puts it on the level of billboards.

    I find the whole idea of sanctioning subversive art preposterous. The reason I t may have been lost, but the reason I want to paint arches on your windows is simply because if everything else is “good for business” or “supported” or “given a kiosk” that’s about the most truly radical thing I could think of doing.

    Seriously, can anyone here grasp how incredibly disappointing it is to hear comments defending graffiti because it’s good for business? It’s like wanting hippies to be elected because they’re good for war. Am I alone here?

  5. Ol' E Cross
    Posted March 26, 2009 at 11:58 pm | Permalink

    I should add that part of my interest in this conversation is tainted by the fact that I am a former vandal. It seemed harmless and subversive until a friend crossed that line of conduct and I realized a) some poor sap’s life would be more difficult and unpleasant in the morning and b) everything I’d done would just make some poor sap’s life more difficult in the morning. And I realized it was all really so we could impress each other and feel good about ourselves.

    But, maybe I’m old now and just don’t get how drawing a tooth on other people’s shit is really an act of artistic revolution.

    This feeling only grew as I gained obligations and realized how difficult even mowing the lawn or shoveling the sidewalk could be any given week. This may be judgmental and self loathing, but I can’t help feel like much of graffiti is for folks to feel good about themselves at the expense of some poor sap whose life will be made more difficult in the morning.

    So, I’ve grown to hate graffiti, sorry, “street art.” It seems like huge potential for a circle jerk. It seems to say, “What I’m doing (by painting a love kitty) is more important than what you have to deal with, day in and day out.”

    And finally, to dig at Andy C again with the “Ypsi has no place for public art.”

    Bullshit. All you’re saying is there’s no one in Ypsi who is creative rather than imitative. There’s hundreds of ways to do art that don’t rely on stencils and aerosal. Sure, they’re mostly temporary, but so is graffiti. If the artists in the community are that unimaginative, they’re not artists. They’re kids who saw a web site and are doing paint-by-numbers in the round.

    Oh, I should also say, I’ve been drinking.

  6. Ol' E Cross
    Posted March 27, 2009 at 12:01 am | Permalink

    By the way, sorry for the typos, missing and extra words. Did I mention I been drinking?

  7. Brackinald Achery
    Posted March 27, 2009 at 5:03 am | Permalink

    What’s the occasion?

  8. Dirtgrain
    Posted March 27, 2009 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    “Have you ever noticed how anybody driving faster than you is an asshole and how anyone driving slower than you is a moron?” – George Carlin

    Graffiti Artist: “Building owner is a moron.”
    Building Owner: “Graffiti artis is an asshole.”

    Is there a washable, easily removed alternative to spray paint? That would be awesome. Graffiti could go up one day, and a simple hosing down could remove it (at some cost/labor, but not too bad?). Maybe we should raise money and put giant white boards or Etch-a-Sketchs on the downtown buildings.

  9. Posted March 27, 2009 at 3:05 pm | Permalink


    There *is* a washable and easily removable alternative to spray paint! It is called chalk and toy stores sell it in lots of colors. I have even let some kids I know decorate my sidewalk before

  10. Dirtgrain
    Posted March 27, 2009 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    Chalk doesn’t apply well to all surfaces, and I’ve had trouble washing off chalk from brick in the past. But maybe it’s not as bad as I remember. Maybe it can be altered to be more versatile in terms of surfaces. But really, we need a spray-paint-like spray paint alternative. The romance of the sssssss, the paint characteristics of the spray–graffiti artists won’t be giving this up for chalk or white boards or Etch-a-Sketchs.

  11. Ol' E Cross
    Posted March 27, 2009 at 5:05 pm | Permalink

    Dirtgrain, It even comes with free stencils.

  12. applejack
    Posted March 27, 2009 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

    There is spray-can chalk out there, but I’ve never used it myself, so I’m not sure effective it is. Another great alternative to spray paint is to use wheat-paste to slap any poster or other paper art on most walls. I could be wrong but I think the ingredients are just wheat flour and water. It can stick around a long time if it’s out of the rain, but can be washed off without a ton of effort. A lot of great street art is put up with wheat-paste.

  13. Dirtgrain
    Posted March 28, 2009 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    Holy crap. Car Art sounds perfect–we’d just have to test it. Spray chalk is even cooler, the best of both worlds. Wheat-paste sounds nice and eco-friendly. Mark could write a grant, and we could acquire a stockpile of these items. Then it would be a question of how to get them into the right hands.

    I wonder what percentage of graffiti people would choose to still use regular spray paint.

  14. Posted March 28, 2009 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    All of them.

  15. Dirtgrain
    Posted March 28, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    What would that say about them?

  16. Posted March 28, 2009 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    It would say they are cockroaches.

  17. jean
    Posted March 30, 2009 at 8:15 am | Permalink

    So when I said “graffiti” is good for business I was trying to subvert the notion that it is ‘scary’ ergo bad. I was trying to present an image of a vibrant, expressive dynamic town that people would want to come check out… more so than one with a disney-like, candy-coated quaintness. It was not an obvious conclusion. …Like say, the idea that all business is bad.

  18. Jordan Miller
    Posted March 30, 2009 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    This is not in the interest of self-promotion (it doesn’t count as self-promotion if you no longer work there). But here’s a link to the story about the battle between Hedger Breed, the property owner to whom I assume James was referring, and the city over whether he had the right to leave a stencil that was put up on his building.

    Now that I no longer have to be objective about it, I can say that it seems ridiculous that a building owner cannot have any say over art on the outside walls of his property, while stores just down the street can fill their windows with advertisements.


  19. Posted August 2, 2009 at 8:11 am | Permalink

    Long live guerilla art!

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  1. […] guess, because I’ve written about the fuzzy line separating street art and vandalism before, I received a letter a few days ago from a local designer asking about the legality of […]

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