October 4, 2012 11:08:52 AM
Carmen K. Sisson - email@example.com
If you can't beat em' join 'em. And if you're going to join them, do it in style.
As executive director of the Columbus-Lowndes Recreation Authority, Roger Short has seen more than his share of graffiti. It is time consuming to remove, and his staff's efforts can be rendered for naught within minutes.
Tired of the endless cycle, he came up with an unconventional means to solve a common problem: He invited students from Mississippi University for Women's Art 260 illustration class to "vandalize" the skate area at Propst Park.
Wednesday afternoon, MUW art professor Robert Gibson watched as 15 students rolled white primer onto the concrete, preparing the surface for designs they've spent weeks brainstorming. Each student was given an idiom, like "if pigs could fly," to illustrate. They then joined together in two-person teams to blend their designs into a sort of "graffiti mash-up."
But the project raises an age-old question: How do you define art? One person's eyesore may be another person's Mona Lisa.
Freedom of expression
Anna Stokes, a junior graphic design major from Ecru, drew a rough outline on paper first, using it as a stencil to illustrate the phrase, "awkward as a cow on roller skates."
As she covered the sloped side of a skateboarder "fun box" in black spray paint Wednesday, she said she liked the unorthodox assignment, as well as the space and freedom to create her own style.
She's also looking forward to another aspect of public art -- seeing how it changes over time as other artists come along and add their own perspective to the piece.
Nearby, Fulton native Chelsea Kimbrough stood back and cast a critical eye over her own work. Her partner missed class, so she was left to fly solo as she illustrated both "a little bird told me" and "come hell or high water."
Beneath her hands, a bird on a branch materialized, leaning over to whisper into a woman's ear. The woman's blonde hair morphed into flames.
Like most of the students, Kimbrough said she knows her artwork will eventually fall prey to vandals, but it doesn't bother her. She'll take plenty of photographs, and then, with Zen-like detachment, she'll walk away.
This is the dilemma all graffiti practitioners face: How much time do you spend on something that can easily be destroyed?
Well-known artists from the online community, "Art Crimes," say the pleasure lies in the creation, with it being more akin to performance art or improvisational theater.
Among those who take the graffiti culture seriously and consider it an art form, there is an unwritten code of ethics: You don't generally write over another artist's work unless you're involved in an ongoing feud -- or you intend to start one.
"Writers hate getting written over -- it's the worst thing to have someone write over you -- it means they didn't respect your art," says "Celtic," an artist interviewed for graffiti.org.
Crime and punishment
Ethics? Respect? Isn't graffiti a form of vandalism?
Yes, and applying graffiti on a surface without the owner's permission is illegal, costing cities thousands of dollars every year to remove. Offenders can be charged with a misdemeanor or a felony, depending on the value of the property defaced.
Columbus Police Department Capt. Fred Shelton takes a crew on "graffiti detail" every year, using left-over paint to cover the scribbles and scrawls left behind by "taggers," who typically spray-paint their names or gang symbols to mark territory.
Two years ago, police donned camouflage and staked out the Columbus Riverwalk for three weeks to nab three juveniles spray-painting obscenities on the concrete beneath the old Highway 82 bridge. The teenagers were charged with malicious mischief.
Around the same time period, Starkville police arrested two Mississippi State University art students and charged them with malicious mischief after they spray-painted flamingos on surfaces around town.
But for as long as there have been humans and walls, the desire to leave one's mark has proven irresistible, with early graffiti dating to the 1600s, Gibson said Wednesday, as he stood beside a box of custom-tipped spray paint cans specifically created and marketed for graffitists. Beneath the bright lights of Paris, underground catacombs feature miles and miles of graffiti and murals -- some crude, some as intricate as the fine paintings that can be found above ground in museums.
Before his students set out to leave their mark at Propst, Gibson acquainted them with the history of graffiti, bringing a guest speaker to class and showing films and documentaries.
A quick show of hands Wednesday revealed that none of the students, or at least none willing to admit it, had experience in graffiti.
For seniors like Grace Steele, a graduate of Immanuel Christian in Columbus, the assignment offered a creative challenge.
"It's kind of interesting, because it's like, 'What if I mess up?'" she said, crouching over her artwork. "You're outside and it's a big area. It's different."
She takes a liberal view of graffiti, within a few parameters.
"I don't think all of it is defacing property," Steele said. "A skatepark is supposed to be a fun place. I could understand if it was on a law firm or something."
That was Short's thinking. He considered advertising a "Graffiti Day," inviting the public to decorate the skate park with "tasteful, not vulgar or ethnically crude" graffiti, but then he thought about MUW's art students and saw a win-win proposition for CLRA and The W.
He isn't worried the sanctioned graffiti could encourage less favorable compositions, but he admitted there's a fine line between what will be OK and what won't, and there's a bit of a double-standard. He said he's not likely to prosecute graffiti artists who want to use the skate park's concrete as a canvas, but spray-painting other surfaces within Propst Park would be considered vandalism.
"Perhaps I've opened up a bucket of worms here, but I don't think so," Short said Wednesday afternoon. "The majority of the patrons we have are good citizens, and the kids, well, if it does (encourage graffiti), we'll just have to deal with it. I feel pretty comfortable."
Part of the permissibility lies in the location -- graffiti is a longstanding tradition in skater culture, so Short sees it as an asset to the overall ambiance of the area.
"I think it's pretty neat," he said, after visiting the site to check out the MUW students' creations. "I think the skaters will like it. It's something different."
He said CLRA is thinking of other ways to inject a bit of fun into the status quo, too.
"We're trying to do some things kind of edgy, as you call it, maybe out of the box, that we haven't done before," he said.
For his next project, he plans to bring a 30-foot outdoor film screen to the new Columbus Soccer Complex for a family movie night beneath the stars. The event is tentatively slated for Nov. 10.
But leave the spray paint at home -- unless you want to eat your popcorn from the backseat of a police car.
Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.