Sarah Goodyear is a Brooklyn-based contributing writer to CityLab. She's written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog.
A new book explores how building owners and mural artists are working together to deter unwanted tagging.
“What people fear is not graffiti itself,” writes Patrick Verel, “but rather what it represents.”
That’s a line from Verel’s new book, Graffiti Murals: Exploring the Impacts of Street Art (Schiffer). Unlike many who have written about graffiti in the past, Verel doesn’t emphasize the aesthetics of the medium, although he takes it seriously as an art form. Instead, Verel focuses on the socioeconomic implications of graffiti—the way it affects the perception that building owners, local businesspeople, and residents have of a street and a neighborhood.
What graffiti represents for many, Verel writes, is an unruly, dangerous, and unpredictable environment. But he doesn’t think it has to be that way.
Verel’s special area of interest is the independent graffiti mural. These are works that occupy a middle ground between simple tags (usually construed as vandalism), and the large-scale, municipally sanctioned murals created by organizations such as Groundswell or Philadelphia’s Mural Arts program. Verel looks at six case studies of such murals: four in New York City and two in New Jersey.
Most of the work in the case studies was created by independent artists with the permission of property owners, many of whom are hoping to forestall random, low-grade graffiti. That, of course, is the issue in many places. A blank wall in a city—especially in an industrial or economically marginal neighborhood—rarely remains blank for long. The proliferation of tags, quickly thrown up in the dead of night, can create a chaotic visual environment that is perceived being as out of control.
That look is anathema to many business and property owners, writes Verel:
Lose control of the property’s appearance, and one loses the capital it represents.
To fight graffiti, many cities, including New York, have programs in which they help property owners cover it with a fresh coat of paint, a process known as “buffing.” But buffed walls often get retagged, writes Verel. That’s where he and many of the people he talks to think graffiti murals can play a crucial role; they’re more likely to be respected and left alone than a simple blank wall:
I aim to show that there is another way: Graffiti murals that retain the energy or “aura” of the art form, while providing the important symbolic control that property owners need.
Graffiti murals have many intertwined benefits, according to the people Verel interviews. He looks at the case of a wall in upper Manhattan on a building that’s home to an auto repair shop, a garage, and a Chinese restaurant. The wall is covered with about 20 colorful, elaborate pieces of graffiti. A veteran street artist named Crane and his crew repaint the wall every spring and fall, at no charge, simply to have a place to promote their own work. The auto shop’s manager agreed to let the artists do what they wanted because he thought it would be the best solution for the property. Verel writes:
[Romeo] prefers clean walls to murals, but he hates tagging even more, and he believes that Crane’s mural is a better deterrent to the tags than buffing. In fact, Romeo turned down a city graffiti cleanup crew who offered to buff the building for free.
Verel’s book (which began as an urban studies master’s thesis at Fordham University) makes the case that in certain parts of the city, this kind of relationship between artists and building owners can be mutually beneficial. He isn’t overly idealistic about the power of the art, and interviews more than one neighborhood resident who thinks that any graffiti, even that approved by property owners, is unsightly and distracting. But many others he spoke with felt more like a Manhattan woman named Marisol.
When Verel asked her if the Crane mural was better than a blank wall, she had this to say:
“Yeah. For the simple reason is that life is beautiful. Why not? Draw something on a blank canvas and make it beautiful, and let other people see your artwork.”