aint the town

Joe Carlson

Like the mythical Jack Frost dotting the leaves and rooftops of America with his intricate patterns of frost, graffiti writers emerge at night and leave their squiggly marks on their world.
But then again, the University doesn’t spend $100,000 a year to remove frost.
The struggle surrounding graffiti and the social issues it raises has raged on both coasts since the mid-70s, and has begun to creep into the Midwest and the University in the past 10 years.
“We get it on the outsides of almost every building on this campus,” said Bob Schenkel, director of Facilities Management, the organization charged with cleaning up most of the graffiti on campus.
Despite this widespread exposure, few have ever seen a graffiti writer at work or even understand the point of the whole graffiti lifestyle.
“I don’t quite understand it myself,” said Ron Christianson, a property crimes detective in the Minneapolis 5th precinct.
The popular view is that graffiti without permission is vandalism — end of debate. “It’s a crime, and if you’re caught, you’re going to be arrested and you’re going to be punished. And it’s going to stick,” said Meredith Voglund, a crime prevention specialist with the St. Paul police department.
But defenders of graffiti make the opposite claim, saying that to cover it up is culturally and aesthetically disrespectful.
“I consider myself an enemy of ugly architecture. I have never placed a tag on a beautiful building. Most of what I like to see is anything that is done with a certain amount of respect for where it’s at, for the people who are going to have to look at it,” said Steve Powers, who tags the name ESPO in New York.
Still others acknowledge that while it is not contracted art, and therefore vandalism, it is nonetheless interesting to see and it contributes to the otherwise bland urban experience.
“If you’re painting serious art, like a mural, that’s one thing … even though we might have to paint over it,” said Jim Duncan, an employee at the McLaughlin Gormley King company on the northern outskirts of the East Bank campus.
The debate over the proper role graffiti should have in urban areas is lengthy and riddled with conflicting opinions. While some have dedicated their efforts to removing it and preventing its spread, others have dedicated themselves as ardently to making it flourish.
And others, like University graduate Melisa Riviere, are dedicated to documenting its existence and finding its origins. She completed a degree in anthropology last quarter, with a 170-page thesis on graffiti in the Twin Cities.
Graffiti comes to Minnesota
Although the beginnings of graffiti are as disputed as the practice itself, Riviere said research has led her to conclude it began in New York and Philadelphia during the late 1960s.
But with the help of two early taggers, TAKI 183 and JULIO 204, New York quickly became the graffiti capital of the nation. In the mid-70s, graffiti there went subterranean as taggers attacked subway cars in greater numbers until the mid-80s, when the New York Transit Authority began a shift crackdown that all but ended subway tagging.
Before long, Riviere said, graffiti spread to the West coast, and began to slowly permeate the Midwest.
Today, the graffiti scene in the Twin cities is not thriving like it did a couple years ago, but is still active. “The scene is big, but it’s not as big as it might seem,” Riviere said, This is partly due to the fact that single writers often have multiple tag names.
Right now, the St. Paul police know of 276 individual taggers. Minneapolis officials estimate there are another 200 in their city. New York City has about 5,000 taggers.
The illegal writing in Minnesota is largely inspired by media reports and books such as Subway Art, rather than a 30-year tradition like the one found in New York.
“By the time graffiti and Hip Hop has hit Minneapolis, it has been so skewed,” said one writer who wished not to have his tag name printed.
Powers, who is the editor of On the Go, a Hip Hop and graffiti magazine in New York City, said that unlike those on the East Coast, Midwest taggers tend to favor aesthetic appeal over sheer number of tags.
“In the major cities, there seems to be a component of, ‘It’s good to be talented, but it’s better to be everywhere.’ That kind of compulsion isn’t really seen in Midwest graffiti,” Powers said.
The language of graffiti
One of the major barriers to understanding graffiti is the wide range of illegal activities that fall under the general category of “graffiti”, said Tom Borrup, director of Intermedia Arts in Uptown. Intermedia Arts encourages young artists and educates the public about art.
“There are all kinds of graffiti, but we only have one word for it. There’s the stuff in the bathrooms, and the large colorful murals, and there’s tagging on storefronts,” Borrup said. Other fairly common forms are stickers and scratching in glass.
“There’s not a language to distinguish what’s what,” he said.
But in fact there is a distinct set of words and terms that taggers have developed to describe what they do, the most basic of which is the “tag.” As the most simple and common form of graffiti, tags are probably the most annoying to property owners, because they are easy to apply.
“The tag is just handwriting,” said Jose Curbelo, a local artist who, in his spare time away from his job as a teaching assistant, paints legal, graffiti-style murals. Curbelo said that he no longer paints illegally or tags private property.
Legal graffiti is generally commissioned and requires the permission of the city in which it appears.
Tags are drawn as a single line in a single color with a permanent marker or a paint marker. They are also relatively easy to remove.
Usually, taggers begin to build recognition of their tags among local graffiti writers by scribbling it up everywhere, or “tagging.” The Washington Avenue Bridge is a heavy-tagging area — containing the work of approximately 20 to 25 taggers.
Once a writer has established his or her tag in an area, they will typically start to paint “throw-ups,” which are quickly-sketched bubble letters of one or two colors in spraypaint. The red and blue graffiti works under the Science Classroom Building are examples of throw-ups.
“You can do it in like five minutes,” Curbelo said.
Writers paint throw-ups either because they know it will be covered up the next morning or else because a wall is in a high-visibility area.
The highest form of graffiti among writers is the “piece,” short for masterpiece, a stylized, multi-colored version of the tag. Pieces tend to be about six feet tall and 10 feet long, using as many colors and taking as much time as the writer has available.
Pieces in Minnesota, especially around the University, appear in places away from the public eye, where writers can spend many hours working, such as “the strip” along the railroad tracks near Kasota Avenue.
The exception to this is a permission wall, such as the Merit Printing wall on Washington and First Avenue in Minneapolis.
Once a vocabulary has been established, the differences between writers’ motives becomes a little clearer. Many writers never make it past the initial tagging stage, and are deemed “toys” by their piecing colleagues. Veteran writers see toys as the group of people who ruin graffiti writing for everybody by tagging irresponsibly and disrespectfully.
“You gotta have morals about graffiti,” Curbelo said.
Writers who have stayed in the scene for years have developed a tightly-knit subculture, complete with its own unique code of ethics. Part of this code is knowing where to tag, or more importantly, where not to tag — houses or other public art.
“The way that graffiti should be is you (paint) places that look nasty … where there is a need to brighten it up,” Curbelo said.
However, some doubt the rigidity of the taggers’ ethic, saying that the code is too idealistic, and is not followed as strictly as writers would like to believe.
“They always say, `We don’t like blank walls, and if you put up murals, we won’t paint over them,'” said Jodi Molenaar, a housing inspector with the city of Minneapolis. “Well, look at the Merit Printing wall. They just write over the things they don’t like.”
Graffiti, Hip Hop and Gangs
Taggers are just one segment of an even larger subculture known as Hip Hop, which also counts rappers, DJ’s, breakdancers, and often skateboarders among its ranks.
“There is a whole range of ways that the culture uses to express itself,” Borrup said, including graffiti, rap music, clothing, and words. The culture has developed enough cohesion over the past 30 years to even become the target of demographic marketing tactics.
But there is no Who’s Who reference guide to Hip Hop. While it is fairly old and developed, it still lacks a definite organization and voice. “Some of the people who most embody Hip Hop would not consider themselves a part of it,” Riviere said.
Also, graffiti writers say their voice is often not reflected in media accounts of their activities. This fact makes it difficult for people to truly understand the essence of the writers.
One group that those familiar with Hip Hop and graffiti do not include is gang-bangers.
Minneapolis Det. Christianson said that most of the graffiti he sees is made by taggers, not gangs.
“The gang graffiti, of course, they put all their gang signs out and they’re kind of marking their territory, where I think (tagger graffiti) is more artistic expression,” he said. “It is kind of a way to entertain themselves, more than marking their territory where if you cross the line you get shot.”
But St. Paul Crime Prevention Coordinator Voglund said that while the police are aware of the differences, most of the general public is not.
“When people see graffiti, they automatically think it is gang-related,” Voglund said, when only about 5 or 10 percent of all illegal wall-writing in the Twin Cities is made by gangs.
Voglund made several distinctions between gang and tagger graffiti, including artistic style.
“We can look at tagger graffiti and distinguish what it is quite readily,” Voglund said. “Whereas gang graffiti is quite crude.”
Another major difference is placement. Gangs tend to heavily mark the small area immediately surrounding their turf, while taggers tend to spread their graffiti over as wide of an area as possible and in the most outrageous places available.
“You go to gangs for a sense of community and family you’re not getting,” Powers said. “You turn to graf(fiti) because you don’t need any of that. You’re an individual and you don’t need to rely on anybody else.”
Graffiti writers’ motivations
According to police, taggers in the Twin Cities tend to be white males between the ages of 14 and 22, many of whom come from affluent, middle-class families. In many cases, if they don’t live in the suburbs, their parents do.
Although who they are is fairly easy to figure out, why they devote so much time and talent to writing is a much deeper enigma, partly because there is no single answer.
“The people who do graffiti are on all different levels,” Curbelo said. “There’s all different reasons, whether they’re good or bad. (One is) to make yourself look cool to everyone else … and that’s kind of a wack way to be thinking about it,” Curbelo said.
One of the major reasons that most graffiti supporters say they use other people’s property as a canvas for their illegal art is to counteract the dullness of typical city settings.
“The urban surroundings are gray and brown and boring and people are going to try to make it livable,” said Theresa Winge, a junior in clothing design at the University who used to tag about eight years ago.
It’s not the intent to beautify the city that most business owners object to, but the method. Writers have taken it upon themselves to decorate the city as they see fit, without cooperation or even permission from those whose storefronts they tag.
“If I wanted my building tagged, I’d do it myself,” said Chuck Nelson, vice president of AARCEE, a business on Lyndale Avenue in Uptown that rents and sells sporting goods. AARCEE’s four brick and stucco buildings get tagged almost every week, Nelson said. He disagrees with the idea that graffiti gives an area a more unique and livable feel.
“As far as giving the city character, the only people they give character to is themselves,” Nelson said.
One of the major points of contention surrounding graffiti is the fact that often no one except taggers can decipher it. Graffiti writers are fond of arguing that their art is a voice for social protest, and that business owners and city employees who cover up graffiti are silencing that voice.
But opponents contend that because most graffiti is unreadable, it is not the community-oriented, socially-minded art form that its proponents claim.
Nelson said he would be more understanding if taggers were writing, “U.S. out of El Salvador, you know, something you could understand instead of all this gobbledygook.”
In fact, no matter how well-meaning a writer’s intentions, graffiti writers might end up hurting themselves in the long run by driving businesses away from the area.
“If anything is going to make me move from the city, it’s the constant graffiti. We’ll take our 15 or 20 jobs out to the suburbs. It’s hard enough to get customers,” Nelson said. “They say, is it safe come down at night?”
Opponents say that the entire graffiti problem comes down to a simple lack of respect for others. “These kids have no respect for other people’s property,” Nelson said.
But veteran graffiti writers explain that the people who are tagging the fronts of businesses are inexperienced toys and do not understand the true purpose of graffiti.
“There is nothing wrong with illegal graffiti,” Powers said,”but you gotta treat anything that you do like you’re going to live across the street from it,” Powers said.
He said writers should concentrate on what he calls industrial wastelands: old buildings left behind by their owners.
“They can permeate a landscape, and they don’t necessarily have to be in the outlying stretches, they can be right in the heart of the urban districts. Those are the buildings that need to be concentrated on.”
Nationalized culture and city beautification are all reasons that writers offer for graffiti. Police and others outside the writing community have their own theories.
Joe May, detective sergeant for the University police, said that the motivation to create graffiti stems from a restlessness in adolescence.
“It’s an anger that young men that age have, and it used to be directed in a lot of ways, but now it just seems to be directed in a more artistic direction,” said May, who does not condone graffiti. “It’s been (converted) from breaking windows to painting on walls.”
Another theory is that graffiti is merely a manifestation of the natural effort young adults use to explore their identities, express themselves and find a focus in their lives.
Although no one is totally sure why graffiti writers do what they do, many are more sure about how officials should respond in terms of education, prevention and punishment.
I fought the law…
Currently, legal penalties for graffiti crimes are fairly weak in Minnesota, and that’s when the charges stick, which police say is fairly uncommon.
“It’s a misdemeanor, so it has to be done in an officer’s presence or someone has to make a citizen’s arrest,” May said.
In fact, there is no law on federal or state books that specifically outlaws graffiti; it falls under the general category of property defacement. This fact makes collecting statistics about graffiti-related crime difficult and leaves ambiguous the specific rights of police, writers and property owners. Currently, stricter and more specific laws are on drafting tables in both Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Graffiti is not an overwhelming problem in the Twin Cities yet. But lawmakers are hoping to nip it in the bud, before it blossoms into the epidemic that it has in cities where it has been around for many years, like New York and Los Angeles.
The policy of University Facilities Management emphasizes quick clean-up over prevention. “Historically, if you leave it up, it will collect more graffiti,” Schenkel said. Thus every Monday morning, a University painter does a regular tour of the West Bank — the most graffiti-ridden part of the Twin Cities campus — searching out and painting over the weekend’s graffiti.
But part of the problem with trying to stop graffiti is that many people, especially those on campus, don’t think it is that big of a deal.
“People are concerned, but not that concerned,” May said. “People don’t like it, but they’re not willing to punish enough to stop it.”
Until they are, places like the back of the Facilities Management building will keep getting tagged.
“We’re going to be having a continuing battle,” Schenkel said. “They’ll keep painting it, and we’ll just keep covering it up.”