Saturday, December 27, 2014

Ronnie Polaneczky | The mess of graffiti outweighs art value

LAST WEEK, I wrote about a heavily graffitied wall that runs parallel to the east-bound lanes of the Schuylkill Expressway (near Spring Garden Street) and is separated from the road by Amtrak rails.

At issue was that Amtrak, after years of easy collaboration with the city's Graffiti Abatement Team, had suddenly stopped allowing the team to cross the rails to clean the mess.

Today, Amtrak officials will finally meet with the city to work out a plan to clean the wall, which had become, I wrote, a "technicolor horror."

While this revived spirit of cooperation will come as good news to many, it'll surely bring only contempt from graffiti lovers who took issue with my column's statement: "Nothing says Philly doesn't give a crap about itself more than a blighted wall leading straight to the city's downtown."

"This city has no appetite for individual expression or any artistic expression for that matter," countered Tony.

Reader Ann Weisse just about blew an artery when she sputtered, "Graffiti in Philadelphia does not demonstrate a lack of caring; in fact, it is a major part of what makes Philadelphia full of beauty and culture. Having lived here all of my life, I do not appreciate some truculent suburbanite rampaging into my city and trying to take away from it."

Where she got the idea that I'm a suburbanite is anyone's guess (though I'll cop to being "truculent"). But her assumption was echoed by e-mailer "Arowback," who whined, "Graffiti writers take way more pride in their city than some crybaby suburbanite yuppie with nothing better to do than find the stupidest s--t to bitch about."

Their defense of graffiti as a legitimate art form was so heartfelt, I felt it was only fair to make them an offer:

"Will you let me publish your address in the paper, with a note saying you welcome graffiti on the walls of your home?" I asked each of them. "Graffiti writers could do their art without risking arrest or its removal, and you and your neighbors would get to enjoy the work every day."

Oddly, not one took me up on the offer.

I guess graffiti is beautiful only to hip urbanites when it's defacing someone else's property.

Still, their truculence (I now plan to use this word often) gave me pause. So much so that I contacted Jane Golden for advice. As the visionary head of Philadelphia's groundbreaking Mural Arts Program, she's befriended more graffiti artists in her time than any of my detractors have, so I asked her:

Do these people have a point?

"No," she said adamantly. "Although I'll admit that some graffiti can be beautiful, it's just as wrong to inflict it on someone's property as it is to break into their car."

We should never lose sight of the "public" when it comes to public art, she said, whether the art in question is a mural, sculpture or mosaic.

"The people in a community are the ones who'll have to live with the art, so they must have a say about what goes on their walls," she said.

It can take dozens of meetings with a community before her group helps them reach consensus about how a mural should define them, she said, and that's as it should be.

"It's a complicated, wonderful and inspiring process, but it's also arduous and hard work. But if you're going to do public art, you have to commit to finding the commonality between the artist and the community."

Graffiti writers, of course, extend no such courtesy to those forced to look at their handiwork. That's why I'll never praise, even grudgingly, even the most artistic-looking graffiti.

The right of a property owner not to have their walls used for a purpose they didn't intend will always trump a graffiti writer's cowboy urge to mark up what's not his, in the name of self-expression.

And you don't need to be from the suburbs to feel that way. *

E-mail polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

http://go.philly.com/polaneczky

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