GRAND RAPIDS — Grand Rapids has never been a city known for its graffiti–most graffiti has been confined to alleyways, under bridges, and other out-of-the-way spots, but in recent months graffiti has become increasingly visible in Grand Rapids as artists have grown bolder in their choice of location. This increase in graffiti comes from the “writers” [graffiti term that refers to the people that pain graffiti] that make up the “graffiti scene,” an underground where skill and visibility earn respect, and competition to become the most visible writer drives the competition that is inherent in graffiti.
It is now common to see “throw ups,” or quickly done outlines of graffiti monikers along highways and on walls around Grand Rapids, whereas they were previously confined to secluded locations. Moreover, there has been a notable increase in the quality of such pieces, with artists possessing considerable more skill than their predecessors creating the majority of the new graffiti. The increased frequency of “throw ups” in visible locations has been matched with an increase in the amount of “pieces,” or multi-colored works that take a considerable amount of time to create, being produced in both the secluded areas where graffiti artists have traditionally painted as well as in more visible locations.
Graffiti, from the Greek graphein (to write), has a history that some trace back to the Roman Empire, with examples being found on ruins in Pompeii. However, graffiti as it is commonly conceived is a product of the 20th century. Graffiti art, the focus of this article, comes from the subway graffiti that began to appear in New York City in the 1970s. One of the early writers, TAKI 183, was the first to gain prominence outside the graffiti scene, with an article about him appearing in The New York Times that aided in the public recognition of graffiti. Early artists in New York City gained recognition by painting entire subway cars with large “pieces” (a graffiti term short for “masterpiece”), resulting in a rolling canvas of sorts that took their art all over town. However, as the city of New York was never pleased with graffiti and in 1989 they finally were able to institute a policy of removing subway cars with graffiti on them immediately, an act that helped force graffiti into the streets on billboards, lamp posts, walls, and abandoned buildings.
During the 1970s and 1980s, graffiti spread to other urban areas around the United States, and eventually, throughout the world. Cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles were home to vibrant graffiti scenes, with artists developing a high degree of skill and visibility. In Michigan, Detroit has the longest tradition of graffiti, with numerous artists and graffiti crews covering the town for the past twenty years. Other Michigan cities, such as Ann Arbor and Lansing also have long histories of graffiti, but despite its size, Grand Rapids does not have a particularly well-established tradition of graffiti. While there has certainly been graffiti in the city for a number of years, the scene was never well developed and most of the art was relatively low quality, with the exception of a few artists, compared to what could be found in other Michigan cities.
Graffiti in Grand Rapids has gained relatively little mainstream attention because of its largely hidden nature. Aside from a Grand Rapids Press article titled “Graffiti: Art or Anarchy?” that examined the “graffiti underground” published on November 29, 1987, there has been relatively little public attention focused on graffiti that does not associate it with gangs. The article claimed that “the hieroglyphics [graffiti] are often devoted to the trinity of youthful graffiti: sex, intoxication, and music” finding that anarchy symbols and rock lyrics are among the most common types of graffiti. While the article featured pictures of graffiti art, it failed to make a distinction between the graffiti scene and scribbling, instead treating all types of graffiti as a part of a series of homogeneous expressions of youthful “alienation.”
A History of Distortion
Graffiti has long been erroneously associated with gang activity, a charge that is especially common in Grand Rapids. Many people in the city government and the Grand Rapids Police Department describe graffiti as a means used by gangs to mark their territory and have been able to successfully use the media to perpetuate this myth. However, the majority of graffiti in Grand Rapids has nothing to do with gang graffiti, and many writers refuse to call what local gang members write “graffiti.”
“The gangs do not do graffiti, they simply write their names or draw their logos haphazardly, there is no art involved” according to one local writer, a statement that sums up the essential differences between gang markings and graffiti. While gangs put their names up to intimidate and mark their territory, graffiti artists tag things in order to become known and develop their skills. In addition, a quick comparison of gang writing verses what is done by graffiti writers demonstrates a dramatic difference in aesthetics, as graffiti writers emphasize the art of writing, not just the act of writing.
The association of graffiti with gangs may be a conscious effort to discredit graffiti as an art form or it may be an honest mistake made by city officials, either way it is a problem that faces graffiti artists. Some of the confusion may be a result of the fact that the public face of graffiti in Grand Rapids is most often the tags, or writing of a graffiti moniker all over town — an art form that to people outside of the graffiti scene looks relatively similar to the GD logos and MEXICAN MOB scrawls that are found on some local walls. In addition, while they have not become an integral part of the graffiti scene in Grand Rapids, graffiti artists in other cities frequently form “crews” or groups of artists that band together for the common goal of getting their name all over their city. These crews, taking names such as Legends of Rare DeSign (LORDS) or I CAN FLY crew (ICF) it is conceivable that politicians could believe that graffiti crews are gangs, although it seems more likely that the crews are viewed as gangs simply because it helps to maintain the association of graffiti with gang culture.
A Political Act?
Some people consider graffiti to be a political act — a means of reclaiming blank urban spaces and using art as a way of breaking the monotony of the urban landscape. Such an assessment is relatively uncommon, and indeed most people do not see the connection between graffiti and politics, if such a connection does exist. One local writer that was interviewed takes issue with such an assessment, stating that while there may be a political aspect to graffiti, it is not an inherently political act.
“While there may be an underlying political context that either exists or can be, perhaps justifiably, externally applied to the art of writing — for the most part, people write not for any type of political reason but rather because they simply want to be seen and gain notoriety. It is important to remember, that the main goal of graffiti is to be seen, not to make a political statement,” says a local writer that for security reasons prefers their moniker not be used.
Moreover, the political arguments for graffiti are most often lost on the general public, who generally see graffiti as consisting primarily of the writing of nonsensical names rather than messages of a explicitly political nature. The public also sees only a small portion of the skills developed by writers which hides the more aesthetically pleasing graffiti that could be more easily viewed as a positive reclaiming of public space. It is this desire to get known, or “get up” all over town to become “all city” that motivates tagging, which is probably the most visible form of graffiti in the city of Grand Rapids, as well as the most offensive to most. Tagging involves writing your moniker with marker or spray paint on walls, newspaper boxes, signs, and other such surfaces. While other writers recognize the skill involved in producing a well-executed tag, for most outside the graffiti scene, tags represent little more than scribbles with bizarre combinations of letters and numbers, certainly not a form of political expression.
It is regrettable, that even with the emergence of new writers with a high level of skill in Grand Rapids, the best pieces remain hidden, for the most part, from public view under bridges, along railroad tracks, and other places where members of the public generally do not go. Tags often are indistinguishable to the untrained eye from gang tags, a fact that contributes to the overall hostility towards graffiti. If people saw the skill that goes into producing some of the pieces, there would perhaps be less hostile view of graffiti. However, even when people recognize the skill of graffiti artists, they often feel that while the art may be of quality, vandalizing private property is inexcusable.
The City’s Reaction
It is unclear as to what extent the city has taken note of the recent increase in graffiti, as it has not announced any new programs aimed at reducing graffiti. The city of Grand Rapids Streets and Sanitation Department runs a “Graffiti Busters” program that encourages citizens to report instances of graffiti on their property via a telephone hotline or email in order to facilitate removal by city employees. Graffiti Busters started in 1999 and uses a city employees to remove reported graffiti and coordinates large-scale clean-ups of areas with “chronic graffiti” using volunteers and people sentenced to community service in the 61st District Court. The program is an inter-departmental collaboration, involving the Streets and Sanitation Department, Parks and Recreation Department, Grand Rapids Police Department, Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association, Neighborhood Services, Grand Rapids Information Center, and the City Attorney’s office. However, this collaboration has not necessarily increased the effectiveness of anti-graffiti efforts, many pieces remain up for a long time and the city has still not passed an anti-graffiti ordinance as called for in the program’s description. Funding has come from a variety of sources, including drug forfeiture money from the Grand Rapids Police Department, community development block grants, and general tax fund dollars.
Without a city ordinance, graffiti in Grand Rapids is generally punishable only if officers catch writers while they are writing. If the “damage” from the graffiti is one hundred dollars or less, the charge is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to five hundred dollars and/or ninety days in jail. In situations where “damage” exceeds one hundred dollars, the charge is a felony and writers face a fine of up to two thousand dollars and/or four years in jail.
With most graffiti causing “damage” over one hundred dollars when costs for clean-up are calculated, the penalties are harsh if one is caught in the act. However, it is quite rare for the police to actually catch people while painting, a reality that spurred neighboring Wyoming to pass a city ordinance giving the police greater powers in arresting those suspected of graffiti. The Wyoming ordinance makes it illegal for those under 18 to carry “graffiti implements” described as spray cans, markers, etching tools, and “any other device capable of scarring or leaving a visible mark on glass, metal, concrete, wood, or any other surface.” Police are able to arrest minors carrying the aforementioned items if they have “reasonable suspicion” that the items are going to be, or have been used, for graffiti. The Wyoming ordinance also requires that artists and their parents be held financially liable for graffiti, requiring them to pay the financial costs of painting over the graffiti.
Documenting the Art
With graffiti being an illegal art form, there is an ongoing battle of sorts between writers and the city crews that cover up graffiti with one side wanting to be seen and the other side seeking to paint over the graffiti as fast as possible. In nearby Grandville and Holland, city policy requires graffiti be removed from public or private property within 48 hours of being reported, and as discussed earlier, in Grand Rapids Graffiti Busters aims to eliminate graffiti as fast as possible. For motorists traveling on local highways, evidence of this battle is easy to notice — large grey squares on the concrete walls and support structures that cover up graffiti.
This battle, and the temporary nature of graffiti, presents a problem for another group of people involved in the graffiti art scene, the artists and admirers that attempt to document graffiti. Because of its temporary nature, what is not covered up by the city fades over time, graffiti’s history is documented primarily through photographs, or “flicks” taken of graffiti art. In days before the Internet, people would collect these photographs in albums and trade them, although now flicks are more often collected on websites devoted to graffiti. Such sites vary from those that cover the whole world or entire countries, to those that cover their local graffiti scene exclusively. While there are no websites dealing specifically with graffiti in the Grand Rapids area, according to local writers the graffiti scene is being actively documented, both by its participants and by those on its periphery.
Despite its controversial nature in the mainstream, graffiti is here to stay, and indeed is increasing in Grand Rapids. While city officials and law enforcement officials will no doubt call for increased programs designed eradicate graffiti, these programs have not worked in the past and consequently, they are unlikely to work in the future. Hopefully the citizens of Grand Rapids will see this new wave of graffiti for what it really is, the creation of art by a talented underground of artists who are willing to risk arrest in order to reclaim public space as their canvas.
A photo gallery of some of the graffiti art in Grand Rapids can be found on the Media Mouse site and more information on the history of graffiti can be found on www.artcrimes.org. There is also a site documenting graffiti in Grand Rapids with a large collection of photos at grgraffiti.port5.com.