The website Equalized.org has been part of a project documenting graffiti art in Grand Rapids since May of 2003. With the project reaching the four-year mark, a Media Mouse contributor conducted the following interview with Equalized.org.
Now that your project has reached four years, it seems appropriate to reflect on both the original impetus for the project as well as evaluating its success or failure. What were the original goals for the project and how successful do you feel it has been?
Equalized.org was really born in late 2002 out of conversations that some former graffiti artists and friends were having about the history of the graffiti scene in Grand Rapids and how much of our collective history had been covered up by the city’s streets and sanitation department. Following these conversations, a few of the folks started going out and taking pictures and uploading them to a free website service. This was done with the understanding that if we did not document this subculture, its history would be written by the media and the police, neither of which were going to portray graffiti in a favorable or even realistic way.
With relatively little advertising, the site launched in May of 2003, coinciding with a significant increase in graffiti starting in the spring and summer of 2003 and running through the summer of 2004. The initial small group more or less fell apart after folks left town, but the project has continued with the help of folks that contribute photographs.
Aside from documenting graffiti and street art, we certainly hoped that it would encourage a more sympathetic and understanding view of graffiti among the larger community in Grand Rapids. With respect to that goal, the project has certainly failed because there has been little effort to advertise the site and it is consequently visited primarily by graffiti and street artists in and outside of Grand Rapids.
Another hope was that the site would facilitate an increase in quality of graffiti art in Grand Rapids, but I would say that effort has failed as well. I’m not sure how much influence we can really have on artists, especially given the distance that we maintain from the scene (we don’t do graffiti or street art), but we had hoped that having a collection of pictures to compare oneself to would encourage artists to improve.
One of the things that we have been interested in is the way in which the local media has reported on graffiti in Grand Rapids. Could you comment on that and discuss any interactions that you have had with the media?
We have received a number of requests from the media, many of which centered on the “graffiti crackdown” in 2005. Various local media outlets wanted us to get them in touch with some of the more hyped artists in the media, specifically MEEK and REN. Even if we had known who those artists were, we would not have given their information to the media. We emailed back and forth with a reporter from the Grand Rapids Press who asked us to respond to a bunch of erroneous information that he had received from the Grand Rapids Police Department for a follow-up story on graffiti in Grand Rapids in the wake of the arrests of five artists. The reporter was unwilling to quote us and instead ran a sensationalized story blaming “punkers” for graffiti and relying exclusively on the police perspective.
Overall, graffiti has been portrayed in a sensationalized manner with stories giving the impression that the community is under attack by graffiti artists. Of course, this is ridiculous on a number of different levels, both in terms of the actual prevalence of graffiti, which really is not very widespread, as well as in relation to other social problems. Other issues affecting urban Grand Rapids including racism, homelessness, and gentrification, all of which are a much greater threat to people living within the city are largely ignored. Instead, we get the semi-annual articles on the news explaining that “taggers” are defacing property left and right. It’s not to too surprising, as these anti-graffiti stories fit into an overall media context of hyping crime, scaring viewers, and criminalizing youth.
None of these stories have talked about the origins of graffiti or its connections to hip-hop culture.
Have you had much interaction with local law enforcement? Have they shown any interest in the site?
No, we have had no interaction with local law enforcement. We know they look at the site based on our website logs and comments they have made in the media, but we have not had any contact with them. There was a blogger over at G-RAD.ORG who was stopped by the police and questioned about graffiti for taking pictures downtown, but we have never been subjected to the same treatment.
You mentioned that the local media has ignored the historical context from which graffiti emerged. Could you talk a little bit about this history? I think a lot of people see graffiti simply as random scribbles rather than as a distinct subculture with a number of unique identifying features.
Graffiti started in the 1970s on the east coast, with the first artists emerging in Philadelphia or New York City, I’ve not seen a definitive statement as to where it actually began. At any rate, graffiti grew into what it is today in New York City, where artists painted on subway trains and abandoned buildings, developing the various stylistic elements that exist to this day–“tags,” “throw-ups,” and “pieces”–each of which have their own conventions within the graffiti scene. Graffiti came into prominence in New York City as a component of the emerging hip-hop culture, being one of the “four elements” of that scene, joining break dancing, DJing, and rapping. Hip-hop as a whole emerged out of a rapidly changing urban community in New York City, particularly around the construction of the Cross-Bronx Expressway and the resulting displacement. Of course, this history is rarely related in stories about graffiti.
In looking at social movements around the world and in the United States, there is a history of movements using graffiti and street art as a means of political expression. However, it seems like graffiti in Grand Rapids does not have a relationship to any political movement. Does such a relationship exist and why?
Graffiti and street art in Grand Rapids is by and large not political. You might see the occasional anti-Bush stencil, but for the most part, there is no connection to politics. You could argue that graffiti and street art are inherently political because they challenge concepts of property and ownership, redefine public space, and are an oppositional subculture, but making such a statement would be pretty dishonest. For the most part, graffiti in Grand Rapids has no roots in politics.