“Art” in the Streets

To the editor:

This article [Heather Mac Donald, “Radical Graffiti Chic,” Spring 2011] seems to be the same recycled Broken Windows theory of sociology in the streets. While I do agree with some of your points on the ego-driven culture of commercial graffiti, not all graffiti artists profit from their vandalism or produce work for corporations or museums. It’s odd that while the trustees of MOCA praise lower-class art, they would never allow it in their neighborhoods. What I don’t understand is how safety is associated with graffiti, which seems to be more about middle- and upper-class fears of people of color or lower-working-class folks along with fears of homeless people and prostitution. For too long, graffiti (as well as gangs) has been unfairly associated with lower-class folks and people of color. You want to uphold a pristine image of “real honorable” working-class folks who are being affected by graffiti vandalism without understanding what it is like to be forced to live in “ghettos” because of being laid off work while living paycheck to paycheck.

Filiberto Chavez
Los Angeles, CA

To the editor:

Graffiti has been going on since the Stone Age. Lighten up and perhaps direct your attention to the eyesores that are advertisements, billboards, etc. that litter cities. I’d much rather look at graffiti than look at ads.

Peter Combe
San Francisco, CA

To the editor:

I agree with the notion that tagging personal or public property is an offensive attack on the public environment. The same is true, however, of advertisements in public places. If we want to upgrade our lives, get rid of graffiti in all its forms.

Rufus Frazier

To the editor:

Graffiti provides direction for inner-city kids that is often better than the alternative. Moreover, what you call the “New York renaissance,” epitomized by Sex and the City, many of us call the downfall. Deitch’s graffiti show points to the lack of joy and passion in the rest of our art scene. Maybe this show isn’t perfect, but would you rather see another Warhol show? I bet so.

Todd O.

To the editor:

I’m not sure I can deal with reading this article. I got as far as the sentence about a city that has given in to graffiti telegraphing to the world that social and parental control has broken down. I live in Berlin, a city too poor to clean up the graffiti but a city intelligent enough to spend what little money it has on excellent facilities for children. One reason I moved here is because of how relaxed people are with children, who are a part of the society here, not a problem, as it seems they must be for you in America. Parental control here has not broken down. Children do not write graffiti because their parents can’t control them. They write graffiti to deal with their lives, their feelings, their emotions, their relationships, etc. Face it: America, in its lustful chase for the easy good life, has messed up its kids. In its hunger for money and easy living, it has shoved aside millions of people, who it now spits on because they put color on the walls of where they live. You are part of that. Why don’t you try to find ways to solve the problem, instead of wasting your time attacking an art show? Surely, the fact that graffiti is being presented as art will mean that people stop associating it with drugs and crime (things that should be associated with money, not graffiti) and thus not find it so frightening. Ms. Mac Donald, you are clearly a wealthy person who has long since forgotten what it means to be young, and no doubt have never known how it feels to have a poor education, and you have written from your perch up high.

D. Horwood
Berlin, Germany

Heather Mac Donald responds:

As graffiti practitioners and defenders responded to my article on the Museum of Contemporary Art’s graffiti show, I eagerly awaited the answer to one basic question: What gives you the right to deface someone else’s property without permission? Or, to put it more accurately: How dare you deface someone’s property without permission? Until a graffiti vandal can explain why he is entitled to hijack the fruits of someone else’s hard work and self-discipline—the wall of a struggling bodega owner in East Los Angeles, say, or a freeway overpass paid for by taxpayer labor—everything else he says about corporate advertising or “outsider art” is just hot air.

The answer never came. Graffiti’s many proponents, including MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, do not even seem to grasp that there is a threshold issue of moral right that needs to be addressed before anything else one might say about graffiti. So I have concluded that the real story of the Art in the Streets exhibition is not the decline of aesthetic standards in the contemporary art world—that is, in fact, an old story that could be told through many different venues. The real significance of Art in the Streets is the depressing discovery that a significant number of individuals in our society are living in an infantile state of moral development. For these solipsistic, morally stunted individuals, the very existence of the property owner whose wall has been defaced by graffiti simply does not rise to consciousness because that property owner’s rights stand in the way of the graffiti vandal’s need for immediate gratification. Behind the graffiti celebrated in Art in the Streets lie millions of invisible workers whose property was appropriated without their consent; Deitch and his MOCA trustees could not even acknowledge their presence.

And so the letters above are all pathetically beside the point. I will address a few of their claims anyway.

Opposition to graffiti does not arise out of racism or “fears of . . . lower-working-class folks.” It is so-called lower-working-class folks who most want graffiti out of their neighborhoods. When the financial advisor to Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposed cuts to the city’s graffiti abatement budget earlier this year, city council members from the city’s poorest neighborhoods objected the most strenuously because their constituents understand the corrosive effect of graffiti on business viability and public safety.

Whether Peter would “rather look at graffiti than look at ads” is irrelevant. The only issue is what the property owner wants to look at on his own property—if he doesn’t want to look at graffiti, then painting it there is a crime.

Todd O. has provided a stunning example of defining deviancy down with his claim that “graffiti provides direction for inner-city kids that is often better than the alternative.” So the only “alternative” to tagging that Todd can think of for these kids is, what, robbing someone? Here’s another alternative: staying home at night and doing your schoolwork. That is the only sure way that barrio children will get out of the inner city. And the decision to stay home and study lies completely within the power of a child and his family.

D. Horwood seems to claim both that graffiti is healthy self-expression and that it is a symptom of some American pathology for which graffiti opponents are somehow responsible. It is simply this: a juvenile narcissist’s illegal pitch for attention. Art in the Streets is not going to make people stop associating graffiti with drugs and crime, because the people who live daily with gang and tagging-crew graffiti know through personal observation that it is associated with drugs and crime.

Since none of the commenters on my article answered the threshold question—What gives you the right to deface someone else’s property without permission?—I will answer it for them: “Because I want to.”


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