I live on Capitol Hill in Seattle, where several a number go around putting their names on everything that is nailed down. I’ve been seeing their work whenever I leave the house, and it’s causing me to think more about exactly what graffiti is, and how to articulate my personal problems with it.
I don’t quite get vandalism, myself. It’s one thing to post handbills, or even to create something thought-provoking that may turn some heads. There’s something about the first time you see “It’s the LAW” turned into “It’s the CLAW”. (Those of you who live in Seattle know what I’m talking about.) But then there’s something about seeing it done the hundredth time that suggests enough is enough, and two particular entities have reached that point with me.
Recently, in this part of the hill, we’ve seen dozens of taggings by MCM. (No, it’s not me, though those are my initials.) This is just a garden-variety tagger, which I consider to be the lowest form of vandal. MCM has hit seemingly every other building for a two-block radius, along with the occasional unfortunate automobile hood. MCM is distasteful to me because there’s no work involved. No art. It’s just a lazy way to destroy something.
Then there’s coldk. coldk isn’t just a tagger: he’s a multimedia criminal. His vandalism ranges from the insane (the back of a sign on I-5) to the irreparable (etched in the center of each window at Broadway Video). He must have gotten bored with drawing ghosts, because most of what I see here is a form of damage that you can’t just paint over: it’s scored into air conditioners and spray-painted onto cloth awnings.
Artistically, MCM has nothing on coldk. But what coldk does is more than just temporary defacement: it’s outright property damage. While I hope that they catch MCM and stick him (presumably it’s a he) with lots of community service scrubbing down our fair city, I have a feeling the cops are much more interested in shutting down coldk.
I hadn’t put my finger on exactly what it is about graffiti that holds that strange attraction for me. I don’t like noise, auditory or visual, in my everyday life. I also don’t condone property damage. Still, there are the occasions where I see something that’s particularly thoughtful or well-done piece of vandalism, and while I am loath to praise it, it will stick with me. Surely many of us have had been discomfited at being attracted to something that just seems wrong. But I do recognize art when I see it, wherever it may be. I may not want to see it on the side of my building, but as long as it’s just one incident (art) and not a mishmash of tagging (noise), something about it pleases me.
I do have to say that the most interesting work I’ve seen on the Hill is the Bald Guy. It’s everywhere: on street signs, street lights, pasted to walls. The thing I like about it is that it’s pervasive, but artistic — and temporary by design.
As I read this, I have discovered graffiti.org, where this very debate of art vs. crime is laid out. I’m also reminded of the Broken Window Theory, which suggests that civic pride and lawfulness recede when vandalism is allowed to remain. This could well be summed up as one of a whole big bag of social mores that doesn’t have, and may never have, a simple answer.