Petaluma360 reports that the misguided youth that has been tagging public spaces all over the West Coast with “berg” and “greb” has finally been identified. He was arrested at his parent’s home, here in Petaluma. Although most are please, there seem to be a few that are defending him and his actions.
I will admit that in my travels I have seen graffiti that was truly beautiful. If it hadn’t been defacing public and private property it would have been noteworthy but as it stood it was tainted. We, as a group, own public property so it is objectionable when one person decides they know what is best for the rest of us. It is kind of why we choose a democratic form of government. If someone wants to express themselves on their own private property, we usually think that is okay. We are even okay with them venturing into public with a bumper full of stickers expressing their views on politics, potholes, and whether peas should be whirled or not. In most parts of the country, we even tolerate trucks with balls but those people are expressing themselves, no matter how immaturely, using their private property, even though it temporarily graces our public roads. However, when someone forces their opinions, views, and expressions onto us permanently by tagging our public spaces it loses much of its artistic integrity, if it had any to begin with.
Defending property damage as “art” is lame. I am not even going to bother intellectualizing that statement with explanations of how it’s immature, disrespectful, etc., because I think everyone knows exactly what I mean. It so not okay to do it that we have chosen, as a nation, to criminalize it. Arguing that it is art reminds me of my years running security at a performance art festival. Although most people “got it” there were some who would claim that they should be free to do whatever they wanted, regardless of whether they hurt people or property, in the name of their “art.” One particular megaphone toting “gentleman” claimed he was a “performance artist” so we should stand aside and leave him unmolested. His art? He used his megaphone to detail the explicit sexual acts he wanted to inflict on the young children of the parents (with kids in tow) that were passing by his camp. Trying to be open minded in our approach to balancing social cohesion with an artist’s desire to “perform” we racked our brains for solution. One brilliant resolution was to arm everyone in his “neighborhood” with thick wooden dowels with which they could also express themselves, artistically of course, by hitting him whenever he said things they didn’t like. In the end, we simply kicked him out because he refused to conform even modestly to his community. (We could do this because the constitution rarely applies to happens on private property, much to many people’s surprise.) Even if there was a First Amendment argument to be had, there is lot to be said for the idea that although you might be legally allowed/entitled to do something that does not necessarily mean you should. You are free to go into Harlem in black face…but I wouldn’t suggest it. But I digress…
So, how far will this vandal’s defenders take the “this is art” logic? They seem to be okay with damaging public and private property. Using this logic, why couldn’t someone claim that their “art” was breaking into cars? I’d argue that breaking into cars is actually less invasive to the public than graffiti as it’s “performed” on an individual basis and is less of a public blight.
However, how much of this vandalism is really meant as a meaningful expression of art? I know it is appealing to think they are all artists but that is far from the truth. Although graffiti is clearly an expression, very few of its authors have art in mind when they tag. I am not a mental health professional but would guess that a good number of graffiti vandals are youth that are simply acting out. Another large segment of the graffiti vandals are gang members, which I don’t think anyone will argue are the type of people we want using our public spaces for any activity. (Yes, we have gangs here in Petaluma and only because of the diligent work and foresight on the part of the Petaluma Police Department has it not become a bigger problem.) It seems like the true artists not only do more than simply throw up tags but also find better (and non-defacing) ways of expressing themselves. Local celeb and internationally renowned artist Ricky Watts seems to have figured out how he can perform his art in public spaces without offending. How? …he asks permission. (For those that don’t know, he is from Petaluma and painted the mural on the backside of the Phoenix Theater.) Simply put, we, as a society, have decided that we don’t want just anyone putting up anything in public spaces. We have planning departments to ensure that neighborhoods retain their character. We have event permitting to make sure that festivals, street faires, and parades complement our community. Finally, we have laws that state that it is a crime to deface public property. We decided on all those and if we want to change them, we can. However, we do that by committee, not by the individual.
However, if you are an individual, want to do something to help, and stand in defense of this young vandal, I challenge you to do these three things. This is called “putting your money where your mouth is.”
1) Come on down to the Friends of the Petaluma River cleanup (held twice a year) and help us clean up graffiti. I think you will be surprised at how few tags would qualify as “art,” even to the most pro-graffiti advocate. I think you will also be surprised at how expensive the cleaning materials are, how toxic they are to our skin and to the environment around the clean-up sites, and at how hard it is physically to clean graffiti off our public surfaces. FPR has a special team that does just that because there is so much of it here in town. In fact, the leader of the group has taken it upon himself to clean-up graffiti year round and is on-call with the police whenever citizens report new tagging. THAT is how much graffiti damage we experience.
Check out: http://www.friendsofthepetalumariver.org/
2) Get off your computer and help the kids in our community. Whether you want to help kids who tag to get attention (a cry for help), tag because they are part of a gang, or those that tag because they want to express themselves through art, there are tons of organizations you can volunteer for. It is VERY EASY to make a HUGE difference in a kid’s life and luckily, Petaluma has some great opportunities to do just that. We are lucky to live in a community where there are so many organizations that help kids and/or promote art. (If I have forgotten any, please feel free to add them in the comment section.)
Check out: Mentor Me, Boys & Girls Club, Petaluma Youth Commission, Petaluma People Services, Petaluma Education Foundation, Cinnabar Theater, Petaluma Art Center, Petaluma Museum Association, Girl/Boy Scouts, 4H, Great Steps…
3) Donate your house, car, and all your other personal property to be tagged. Someone on Facebook claimed, “Mr. Murphy can come over and decorate my home any day.” That is an easy thing to type but I highly doubt you would be happy once “berg” and “greb” was spray-painted all over their house. But, if you are going to invited graffiti on your home, you should be democratic about it, you know, because all artists should be able to express themselves where ever and whenever they want, right? You cannot just invite those that actually have artistic ability but have to also invite those that are tagging just to tag, as well as the gangs that are tagging to claim territory. I am confident that it will not be so romantic once you have to live with it 24/7.
Sure, the third challenge is a bit tongue-in-cheek as I’m sure nobody will take me up on it but I couldn’t resist. That one won’t actually help solve the problem of vandalism, neighborhood blight, and youth crying out for help, but I think it makes a point. It is easy to claim you will do something but putting your money (and or time) where your mouth is takes a bit more accountability. But, the first two are serious challenges to anyone who flippantly comments that the rest of us are over reacting and this vandal should not be treated as a criminal. Of course, it is much easier to simply voice your opinions and concerns through mediums like Facebook than to actually do something about a problem or a cause but that is also why the word “slacktivism” has come into use. Hitting the “like” button on a Facebook post does NOTHING to help that cause. It takes action and personal fortitude and a true interest in your community and your society to bring about change. You have to actually go out and do something in order to make a difference, not simply sit back and comment on a news story. Luckily, if you live in Petaluma it is a lot easier than one might think. Few places on this planet offer as many opportunities to help others, whether you would prefer to donate your money, your time, or your expertise.
Nevertheless, that’s just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.