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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Graffiti: Inside the Art of Expressive Vandalism

Monday, July 22, 2013

It is an early Saturday in May and vendors have set up booths at a typical Iowa Farmers Market. The locals are enjoying the weather and eagerly purchasing the first fresh produce of the season.

One man's eyes are fixated at a cement wall. It appears that several people have written on the wall, but two pieces of street art stand out. Stylistically, they are distinct from one another. On the left is a 4-foot drawing of an unfamiliar creature with the tag 'Choke.' On the right is a large, illegible, spray painted tag that has been painted over another piece.

While the man seems to be captivated by this wall of graffiti, he admits to knowing little about the art form.

"What I see is a dialogue between the artists painting on the walls and the authorities that come and clean it all up," he says.

Graffiti art is self-expression but also vandalism. Thought-provoking, but also annoying. Misunderstood, and a crime.

It is these contradictions that draw people's attention to graffiti, even while knowing that the conventions it breaks sometimes include the law.


In its most basic form, the art form can be traced to ancient times. "People have always written on walls," says Kembrew McLeod, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa.

McLeod has written several books and co-produced a PBS documentary that focus on hip hop culture. While interviewing artists and musicians throughout his career, McLeod has familiarized himself with many of the elements of the culture of hip hop, graffiti included.

"In terms of graffiti as it's recognized today -- as an art form -- it really started to evolve in the late 1960s and early 1970s into something that was more elaborate than simply someone's name." McLeod says.

One of the most famous graffiti street artists able to make a seemingly effortless shift from tagger to art icon is Jean-Michel Basquiat, a New York City artist who died in 1988. "He was basically a street kid graffiti artist who transitioned into, kind of, the lower-east-side, avant-garde art scene world in the early 1980s," McLeod says.

McLeod says graffiti began to transform in the 1970s in New York City's South Bronx. "People began to make more and more elaborate graffiti murals that would sometimes be painted on walls of abandoned buildings. There were a lot of abandoned buildings in New York, especially in the South Bronx, during that time. And then, interestingly enough, people started to paint on subway trains."

Painting on subway trains gave graffiti artists the ability to show their art in New York City's boroughs as the trains made daily trips through different neighborhoods.

The upsurge of street art wasn't welcomed by everyone. By the late 1970s, graffiti was targeted as a menace.


"It comes and goes. Going back 10-plus years, the community has had its issues with grafitti," says Storm Lake Public Safety Director Mark Prosser. "Some years it is a big problem, but in the past two years or so, it has been reduced quite a bit."

Most of the local art is considered "tagging" - which has elements of competition and claiming territory as well as self expression. "Some of it has been gang related, some has nothing to do with gangs. Some is what some people would call artistic, unfortunately art isn't appreciated very much when it is on someone's business or sign."

At times, taggers defeat themselves. They are often young, and at times school officials have been able to recognize the painter's style or signing for police. In some cases, graffiti has even been used to assist in locating witnesses in other criminal investigations in Storm Lake.

Locals may most often experience graffiti as the long, slow freight trains bisect the city. "When you sit at a crossing, you see an immense amount of art on the cars passing through. Somewhere, people are probably in a dark train yard painting a whole lot of the stuff - and to be honest, some of it really shows talent. You wonder what these artists might be capable of if they were doing this as a career instead of vandalism."

One site that had repeatedly seen tagging vandalism was a county storage building in central Storm Lake. A family court program was able to obtain permission to use a building at the site for some of the more talented young artists to produce grafitti-style murals on each side, promoting the beauty of Storm Lake and its multiculturalism. Apparently artists respect artists, as the legal artwork remains, the building unblemished.


Iowa City Police Sgt. Vicki Lalla views graffiti as an expensive problem.

"A lot of people look at graffiti and think of it as being harmless, and it doesn't hurt anybody," she says. "And some of it is kind of fun to look at, for sure. But from the viewpoint of the property owner, it's a nuisance because they have to clean it up, whether it's a business or a residence, or even the city. The city has to pay to clean up a lot of graffiti."

Graffiti is recognized under Iowa law as criminal mischief, but there is no easy way to distinguish graffiti crimes from other crimes also classified as criminal mischief. Most graffiti is punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine. First-degree criminal mischief, the most severe form, is a Class C felony and punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The severity of the offense is contingent on the value of the damaged property.

Graffiti artists rarely are caught and charged with the crime. "It's nearly impossible to catch someone without a witness," Lalla says.

She admits that there are times when she has been impressed by graffiti she sees. "There is some stuff that is pretty ingenious, I think, when you see it. But that doesn't make it any less criminal, doesn't make it any less of a nuisance."

Graffiti often is written on public property, so, essentially, the city and taxpayers end up paying for the damage.

"I guess one way to look at it is, the only person that the graffiti doesn't end up being somewhat of a nuisance to, is the person that's putting it up."


Todd Thelen runs a vintage clothing and furniture store. His property has been defaced by graffiti artists several times.

"I'm not offended by it, as long as it's not destructive," said Thelen, who graduated with an MFA in printmaking from the University of Iowa in 1993.

"The way I look at graffiti, there's different levels. Graffiti's been around a while and I kind of think of people like Keith Haring and Banksy who are doing kind of high graffiti. I mean, they actually think of it as art. And then you just get the random taggers who just want to put their name up for, whatever. It's just an ego trip for them."

In his Iowa community, the property owner is held responsible for cleaning up graffiti quickly, and if they don't, the city will do it and bill them.

Thelen says he sees graffiti as "outsider art." He even has kept one piece of street art on an exterior wall. "If they (graffiti artists) were taking their time and doing something serious, I wouldn't be so offended," he said.

If given the opportunity to speak with some of the taggers who have defaced his property, Thelen would tell them: "Stop being boring. If you're really going to get into it, then get into it. Be serious about it."


One Iowa street artist tags under the name, Mone. Revealing his real name could expose him to unwanted attention, particularly when it comes to the law.

Mone has been experimenting and refining his craft for the past six years. From a young age, he had been captivated by the art form. "I was always infatuated with the style of imagery that graffiti casts," he says.

Mone credits a Los Angeles-based graffiti crew, MSK, as one of his main artistic inspirations, but is quick to add, "the people around you will always be the strongest inspiration in your life. Always surround yourself with good people."

Now, he says, "I feel like I am a part of this culture in this modern day society."

Mone says he is a self-taught artist who believes that his growth in life as a person has had a direct effect on the progression of his art. "Graffiti is a way of life to me. I like to express myself quickly with style and move on to the next thing."

Ask him where he would put his graffiti, if given the opportunity to place it anywhere in the world, he responds, "Wherever's clever."

Mone expresses himself in other art forms, too, but graffiti is his medium of choice.

He says the appeal of graffiti is hard to explain. Part of it is the illegality of what he is doing. "I feel like a rebel but not by choice. I just want people to see my art free of cost. I want to give to the world. If that is against the law then I guess I'm lawless."

Even so, he follows his own moral code. For example, "never do it on private owned businesses, never on cars or houses." Mone says gang-related graffiti hurts the reputations of true street artists.

Mone has concerns about how people view graffiti art. "I notice that a lot people cannot tell the difference between great graffiti writers -- who are more dedicated in the art form -- and the average graffiti writer. This is because there is a strong lack of knowledge in this form of art and it is rarely taught to people because of the legality of it."

Teaching people about graffiti would help people understand it, he says. "It really grinds my gears when the average eye cannot see the difference between a piece of art work and vandalism. I do not go out looking to deface property. I feel as though I am giving life to it."

* Danielle Wilde is a journalism/studio arts student at the University of Iowa. Dana Larsen of the Pilot-Tribune contributed local information to this report.

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