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Art, but not as you know it!

Art, but not as you know it!
by Stefan Pazur

Many people in NSW view certain types of street art as a form of artistic expression. They also view that when it's done illegally with purpose of defacing property through messy tags this serves no purpose but to cause conflict in the community. It definitely does for many of us.

Stories making the headlines in recent months include the sentencing of 18-year-old Chayane Back over a tagging incident in Sydney's Hyde Park. Another recent story tells of the arrest and sentencing of 18-year-old Matthew Sale, for blocking train signals on the Western Train line with a group in early 2009. Unfortunately this is currently the only method that punishes those who ruin the reputation of genuine mural aerosol artists.

Figures released by the Attorney General's Department indicated “that councils applied different rules when reporting illegal graffiti.” The information showed that 64 percent of all graffiti incidents were documented. Fourteen percent documented major incidents, while nine percent only counted graffiti had been removed. Eighteen percent of these reports were incidents that occurred on properties owned by councils, with few of these actually reported to police.

Attempts to encourage “legal” graffiti walls haven't necessarily worked. In March 2008 council representing the Blue Mountains removed a legal wall after a reduction in funds based on results outlined in the Attorney General's report earlier that year.

The audit by the Department suggested that the introduction of sanctioned graffiti areas through the “Beat Graffiti” program in NSW had not reduced the overall problem of illegal graffiti tagging.

On March 2008 the Blue Mountains council removed one such designated area after its grant money was cancelled.

Mayor Jim Angel said, “Unfortunately, without the 'Beat Graffiti' funding, Blue Mountains City Council is unable to maintain the legal graffiti wall and the Aerosol Art Reference Group that monitored the appropriate use of the site.”

The Blue Mountains Council informed local street artists of the changes before the introduction of NSW's new graffiti law in late November 2008.

“Young people need to know it is an offence to be caught carrying spray cans, markers and painting public or private property unless they are authorised to do so. If caught by police, they will need to show proof of authorization,” Councillor Angel said.

For the past twenty-five years a mural group has been present in the Western Sydney area. Jasy, who runs the Mural aerosol art group around the Blacktown area, says, “We have a good and positive relationship with the council and the local community, the police are not hard on us and would usually speak to us if some one gave them a call.”

Some of the mural art projects the group has created around the area include the Quakers Hill shops, Seven Hills car park and the mural at New Dimensions Gym at Mount Druitt among others.

The question remains, should law-biding aerosol street artists be classified in the same group as vandals? I would say the answer is definitely not. These groups like the one Jasy runs not only promote better communities through quality mural street art but also provide positive guidance and direction to young people in becoming responsible citizens. Groups such as these are actively helping to tackle vandalism by assisting the authorities and their local communities.


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A new definition?

Good points, Stefan, I'm also curious to know why you've grouped taggers in with graffiti artists?

I don't think anyone would classify a 'law-abiding' artist as a vandal, especially if they have been granted authority by a council to undertake street art.

I think the real problem is tagging, not graf art. You make the point that Attempts to encourage “legal” graffiti walls haven't necessarily worked. And I'm not surprised.

One goal of tagging is to get your tag into the most dangerous and difficult to reach place, while still being obviously visible. The subtext being that the more dangerous the place, the 'harder' the tagger, this then pays out as street cred.

Another use of tagging is for street gangs to 'mark territory', like dogs peeing on lamp posts.

So while it might be nice for a graf artisit to practice somewhere legally, a 'legal graffitti wall' doesn't address the bigger issue of tagging.

I think there is also a very fine legal line between 'art' and 'vandalism', as one man's art is another man's eyesore. But who is The Decider? Not even Angelina Jolie is that convincing.

I lived in East London for years and saw the upward trajectory of Banksy, going from a nameless nobody to world famous street artist; some walls his stencils were on were chipped out and sold, after Jolie put a $500,000 price tag on one of his pieces.

No one sees Banksy as a vandal, however he is, hence his protectiveness about his identity, what he does is illegal.

So where do you draw the line?

Graffiti – a definite go go!

Interesting topic, Stefan. I certainly agree with you that law-biding aerosol street artists should not be classified in the same group as vandals.

I do agree that sometimes graffiti does border on vandalism but in many cases it is a creative outlet for those with a cause.

An interesting example to cite here is the graffiti on the wall that separates Israel from Palestinian West Bank. Messages on the wall include "If all humans are equal, why do they have to live separated?" Graffiti here gives the Palestinians a constructive outlet for their grief. It is a non-violent way of making their point. The anti-war poetry is moving and it inspires people.

Why not encourage this harmless, creative and yet effective way of expressing oneself?

Does the punishment fit the crime?

You refer in passing to the sentencing of Chayane Back and Matthew Sale without mention what their sentences – which you term "the only method" of punishment for illegal tagging – were. Perhaps the consequences are not stringent enough?

Are prosecutors making examples of Back and Sale, especially because of the unusual nature of the sites of their vandalism? If so, why not also punish common vandals who tag regularly and more profoundly (I have seen several tags repeatedly throughout parts of Sydney) as severely, considering they are the ones responsible for the majority of graffiti at more accessible, less unique sites?

You also mention these high-profile cases (they must be high-profile if I had already heard about them!) without mentioning other cases of everyday tagging in which the perpetrators were brought to justice. I wonder if there is any difference between the sentences issued to Back and Sale versus those handed down to other vandals who didn't deface such sensitive property, i.e. a prominent cenotaph or railway signals.

As a Los Angeles, Calif. native, I am quite familiar with tagging as a way for area gangs to outline one's territory. I am curious as to whether this same form of claimstaking motivates Australian taggers as well.

I am also interested in whether legitimate graffiti artists have shunned designated areas – as it seems this Banksy that Nadia refers to has – and what motivates them to shun areas set out specifically for the benefit of consumption of their art. So I agree with Nadia that artistic merit cannot overshadow the illegality of creation in undesignated areas.

My overarching question is, does the punishment fit the crime?


Stefan, are there statistics to promote sanctioning street artists as effective in reducing a neighborhood's graffiti vandalism? I have noticed in the St. Peters suburb of Sydney that graffiti vandalism is still pervasive in some areas, despite the presence of an active (and very talented) street artist group at a sanctioned site. But this is just one case observation. And perhaps the graffiti would be worse without the site.

Therefore I do not doubt a potential link between sanctioned street art and graffiti vandalism reduction. I just wonder if any communities across Australia have seen a benefit from the council sanctioning street artists to work in designated areas. Such evidence could convince city councils to open more sites for street art.

t does concern me that the Blue Mountains City Council closed a sanctioned site citing a lack of funds. Street artists are pretty avid about their work – surely these groups would be open to privately managed sites. This should not cost the council a lot of time or money if done properly.

Art or vandalism?

Stefan, you make some very interesting points in your article. But I am curious as to how you classify a 'genuine' aerosol street artist.

How do you determine what is art and what is vandalism? Is this simply wound up in legality?

I disagree that involvement with a council or community makes one a 'genuine' street artist.

Technically, recognised artists like Banksy undertake 'illegal graffiti'. Should they be punished like Chayane Back?

By creating their art, they are breaking the law, which is vandalism.

But by creating their art, they make beautiful, powerful statements. Even though it might not be sanctioned by council and community, I feel that this kind of graffiti is still 'genuine' art.

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