Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design

From Portland to Milwaukee to Ypsilanti, a new wave of do-it-yourself art, craft, and design is, and has been, emerging across the nation. Intertwining interviews of crafters from all areas of the nation with photos of their work, Faythe Levine and Cortney Heimerl have compiled an intriguing look at the rise of DIY crafting.

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From Portland to Milwaukee to Ypsilanti, a new wave of do-it-yourself art, craft, and design is, and has been, emerging across the nation. Intertwining interviews of crafters from all areas of the nation with photos of their work, Faythe Levine and Cortney Heimerl compile the ever so timely book, Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design.

Upon skimming through the brightly-colored glossy pages, we see photo after photo of young emerging artists showing off their handiwork. Lampwork beads, handmade shoes, latch-hook rugs, refurbished jewelry, altered clothing, and knitted purses are exhibited by twenty-four crafters. Through interviews, they all share their inspiring stories of how independent (also known as “indie”) craft has impacted their lives.

With blogs, forums, and craft websites hopping with both makers and buyers, many indie crafters have transformed small projects, which at one point started from sitting on their bedroom floors cross-stitching, has now turned into an underground economy from which many are able to make their living. A dream come true for some of the crafters featured; the ability to combine their passion and skill to create and make money doing what they love, drives them – for others, it is a reclamation of the creativity and uniqueness that they feel is stripped from our society by corporate influence and uniformity, that makes them flourish in the art. As Andrew Wagner states in his essay entitled “Craft: It’s What You Make of It” he says “Making your own clothes, your own dinnerware, your own art has become a way to politely (or maybe not so politely) give ‘the man’ the middle finger, for lack of a better term.”

Wagner’s reaction to the rise of the indie craft revolution perhaps best envelopes many of the feelings the twenty-four crafters share about their community. So whether they intend to or not, these crafters are stabbing capitalism in the heart by outwardly refusing to participate in the corporate economy while supporting their own independent market that eliminates mass production, the “middle man”, and may also take the form trading goods and eliminating any or all currency in their transactions.

Even someone completely foreign to the world of indie craft will instantly notice the complete turn-around of what makes this form of craft different from their grandmother’s. While many of these crafters borrow old traditions, what they are creating is something drastically different and completely new.

Throughout the text, Levine and Heimerl intersperse other crafters’ wisdom through short essay-like segments which give much insight into the many varying interpretations of what craft is, how it can be used as a catalyst for social change, the Internet and its affects on craft culture and business, to craft as a therapeutic and even spiritual form.

Handmade Nation makes it immediately obvious that in this particular world of craft, the medium, the creativity, and the ideas, know no boundaries and the empowering underlying message: anyone can do this.

Faythe Levine and Cortney Heimerl, Handmade Nation: The Rise of DIY, Art, Craft, and Design, (Princeton Architectural Press, 2008).

Art Cooperative Closes its Doors

The Division Avenue Arts Cooperative (DAAC) announced today that it is closing its doors following a visit last night by city fire inspectors. The downtown venue hosted hundreds of independent music and art shows over its four years of operation.

daac logo

Last night, the Division Avenue Arts Cooperative (DAAC), a venue for independent music and art in downtown Grand Rapids was visited by the Grand Rapids Fire Prevention Bureau. According to the Grand Rapids Press, the fire inspector who visited the site said that 143 people were in the venue, exceeding its 100-person capacity. Additional violations were also reportedly found, although they were not specified in the article published in the Press.

The DAAC had the following announcement on its website from long time DAAC volunteer Jeff Vandenberg:

“R.I.P. D.A.A.C.

OCTOBER 29 2004 – DECEMBER 27 2007

Well, the mighty hand of bureaucracy finally came down on us last night.

Apparently, some kid’s parents called the fire marshal on us for being over capacity. They wrote us up for several violations, and said I can expect calls from various other city inspectors today. I do not believe this is a battle we can win (or afford) so this is it, the end of an era. All shows are canceled. Thanks to everyone who played or booked or came to shows. It’s kind of amazing we made it over 4 years.”

The DAAC will no doubt be missed, as it had a long history of hosting a variety of independent cultural events including art exhibits, independent music concerts, and movie showings. Unlike other music venues in Grand Rapids, the DAAC was run cooperatively and emphasized the inherent value of art–whether music or otherwise–over profit. In its four years of existence, the DAAC hosted hundreds of musical events by local and national touring bands covering a wide range of music.

While there are no plans to open again at the current site, there is discussion about the future of the DAAC. The website G-Rad.org has an ongoing discussion about the DAAC on its forum. Moreover, there is a meeting planned for Saturday, January 5 at 12:00pm at Foodsmith (122 S. Division Ave.) to discuss the future of the DAAC.

For more on the history of the DAAC, there is an article on the venue on the Grand Rapids wiki Viget.org.

Beehive Collective Discusses Art as Organizing at GVSU

The Beehive Design Collective discussed how it has been able to use art to explain complex processes from biotechnology to free trade via art and “visual narratives.”

beehive design collective graphic

Today, the Beehive Design Collective discussed how they use art as an organizing tool at an afternoon lecture at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) in Allendale. The Collective and their art has circulated extensively within the anti-globalization movement and this is the Beehive’s third time visiting West Michigan.

Rather than talking about the Collective’s “graphics campaigns“–which the Collective uses as means of popular education to explain complex processes in society from biotechnology to free trade agreements–the Collective focused on how they have been able to use their art as an organizing tool. The Collective, which will also be appearing tomorrow night in Grand Rapids, explained briefly that its work is the product of extensive touring and research with people around North America and Latin America. Their art is produced as black-and-white pen and ink drawings and are designated as “anti-copyright” with the hope that activists and organizers will use them as a tool to educate their communities. They emphasized that over the past seven years of the Collective’s evolution their graphics have begun to emphasize story-telling via visual narratives with the goal of breaking down complex issues–trade, drug war, agricultural policy–and making them easily understandable for people that either speak a different language or are not literate.

The Collective told the audience that they got their start around seven years ago after a Collective member circulated a flyer at the 2000 World Bank/IMF protest searching for artists to contribute to a stone mosaic project. Since that time, the Collective has expanded and its major focus is now on “graphics campaigns.” The Collective has distributed over 60,000 posters via touring and donations to community groups, emphasizing the importance of person-to-person interaction and popular education presentations instead of selling them in stores. The Collective also recently acquired a new house in Maine that has allowed it to become a bit more structured and centralized as a Collective rather than the autonomous structure that characterized its early years.

The Collective’s work has grown in scope over its history from one of its earliest projects advertising a “BioDevestation” event in Boston to its current project on Plan Puebla Panama. A significant change has been a shift from text-heavy art to including minimal amounts of text in order to facilitate a cross-cultural dialog. The Collective’s Free Trade Areas of the Americas (FTAA) campaign was its first step in this direction, with the goal being to explain the complexities in free trade agreements to audiences. The group used the campaign to promote the 2003 FTAA protests in Miami, as well as offering it to the activists that gathered in Miami to bring back to their communities as a means of explaining what was at stake with the FTAA.

The Collective’s next campaign was a graphic focusing on Plan Columbia. This was the first time the Collective sought to incorporate a distinct narrative framework. The graphic tells the story of Andean Region from the conquest over 500 years ago to the present, explaining that the same colonial mindset persists. It specifically tells the story of “Plan Colombia” and the United States drug war and how they threaten to displace traditional ways. The graphic is based on dialog between the Collective and people living in the Andean region and not only tells the devastating effects of Plan Colombia but also celebrates resistance and indigenous ways. Moreover, all of the plants and animals in the graphic–which the Collective uses in order to challenge people not to look for themselves in the art and to overcome concerns about stereotyping–are specific to the Andean bio-region.

While the Collective has been working on its Plan Puebla Panama graphic for four years, it has also done a number of other projects for the Latin American Solidarity Conference, on climate change and climate justice, and for the Maine Social Forum.

The Collective concluded by saying that the theme that connects all of its work is an intense love of using the small to explain the larger picture and the relationship between the microcosm and macrocosm. Their technique of using visual art to explain complex social and political issues is a welcome and much-needed shift from the text-heavy and often dense analysis that is so common on the left.

The Beehive Collective will be appearing tomorrow night (Thursday) at the Urban Institute for the Contemporary Arts (UICA) at 7:30pm. The UICA is located at 41 Sheldon SE in downtown Grand Rapids.

Interview with Local Graffiti Website

Now online for a little over four years, Media Mouse interviews the graffiti site Equalized.org about the underground art scene and its portrayal in the media.

graffiti in grand rapids (photo)

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.

Chilean Scholar Discusses Art as Resistance during the Pinochet Dictatorship

On Thursday, Chilean scholar Gonzalo Leiva spoke at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) about art and resistance. Leiva presented a portion of a three-year research producted that looked at the cultural responses to Pinochet’s regime.

On Thursday, March 1 Grand Valley State University’s Latin American Studies department hosted a presentation by Chilean scholar Gonzalo Leiva on the Allendale campus. The title of Dr. Leiva’s talk was “A Historical Cultural Imaginary of the Chilean Military Dictatorship 1973 – 1989.” He presented part of a three-year research project that he and some of his colleagues were conducting that looked at certain cultural elements during the Pinochet regime. The dictatorship was intolerant of many art forms and was resisted by numerous artists who created “subversive art.” He stated that their research project was a form of “visual memory.”

Before discussing what he called the “4 phases of the imaginary of the dictatorship,” he addressed the Allende government and cultural expression.

Under Allende there was what he termed “visual memory and the visual unity.” Allende is usually referred to as a Marxist, but it was a new form of Marxism that was much more artistic and imaginary. He was elected by popular vote and adapted similar language of the Cuban revolution, like the term Venceremos, which translates to “We Shall Overcome.” He showed an example of a poster of a boy at 8 with the Venceremos statement. After the coup this boy, who was known as the Venceremos boy was tortured and killed at age 11. Then he showed the audience a whole new aesthetic with the Pinochet dictatorship, consisting mostly of military images, weaponry, and Pinochet with the flag. Primarily, the presentation consisted of what Dr. Leiva called the “4 phases of the imaginary of the dictatorship.” Note: The Allende government was overthrown with the assistance of the US government and the CIA. There is now substantial documentation on the US role in this coup.

Phase I (1973-75) – This phase included a cleansing process, particularly of Marxism, which was seen as a disease. The methods used were torture, exile, murder and a curfew. A new economic model began with an emphasis on the external. It began by targeting those in the Allende administration – with an element of gender stereotypes, where men were prohibited to have long hair and women could not have pants. This authoritarianism gets played out at the university level and other cultural centers. There was most certainly censorship of the media. He provided and example of a Chilean artist who was critical of the Pinochet government, who was arrested and sent into exile, which demonstrated the intolerance of the new regime.

Phase II (1976 – 83) – This phase was the beginning of the neo-liberal model with the assistance of Chicago University Professor Milton Friedman. This was a period where the bodies of many people who had disappeared during the early years of the regime were discovered. The dictatorship could no longer deny what had been done. This is also the time that the first demonstrations against the regime had began, with organized political opposition by 1982. One artistic example was the work of Luz Donoso and Hernan Parada who did an exhibit in the main street with images of the disappeared and TVs. From 1977-79 a collective of artists come together that had as a metaphor for it’s artistic expression a thread, to show that their work “sewed people together who had been torn apart from the violence.” There was also the work of Eugenio Dittborn who addressed the violence of the state without talking about it directly. He used images of torture techniques and images of people died decades earlier.

Phase III (1983-85) In this phase there is a strong institutionalization of the regime with changes if the constitution and laws. It was also a crisis period where the economy starts to fail and things like soup kitchens and street people appear. There were also beginning efforts at an international level to prosecute Pinochet. The dictatorship tries to use Chilean history to justify the present. For example, a Chilean named Portales who was the first to advocate for a military, his image was used to promote Pinochet’s regime, in the same way that Russia used the image of Lenin. You also see new organizations like social and human rights groups in the country during this period. Pinochet called for a plebiscite, but lost the election and eventually stepped down.

Phase IV (1985-90) – During the fourth phase a new collective of artists came to together to document with photography the past 15 years of the dictatorship. Professor Leiva focuses on several female photographers. He talks about a women named Leonora Vicuna who only photographed in black and white, since she believed Chile is a grey society. She then painted on top of the photos to communicate what she wanted the country to be. She looked at everyday life for many people as well as the view of Indigenous populations. Another photographer Paz Errazuriz, looked at all the hidden places and people of Chile. She did work photographing the mentally ill. She also looked at trans-gender people and the elderly. One last artist is Hellen Hugues, an American from California who worked with a solidarity group. Her most important work is around the curfew and the repression directed at people who protested publicly.

He concluded by saying that “there was substantial artistic expression against the repression.” Many artists who rejected the Pinochet regime they either went into exile or formed collectives to resist the dictatorship. In many ways their work was a set of metaphors for the dictatorships and that the repression of the dictatorship was defeated in some ways by this subversive artistic expression.

We also interviewed Professor Leiva after his lecture about other forms of art as resistance in Chile, what artists are doing since the death of Pinochet, the exile Chilean community, and the role that Milton Friedman played in shaping the Chilean economy. The interview is in Spanish.

Listen to the Interview

Graffiti on the Rise in Grand Rapids

In recent months, there has been a notable increase in the amount of graffiti art seen around Grand Rapids, with colorful pieces of art covering previously blank walls throughout the city. This article explores the history of the graffiti scene in Grand Rapids and surveys its current state.

Graffiti Photo


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.

Crimes Of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality

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Jeff Ferrell’s Crimes Of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality is an intriguing and well-researched look into the social, aesthetic, and criminal aspects of the graffiti subculture in Denver, Colorado. Unlike many other books on the subject that have the simple documentation of the art form as their goal, Ferrell aims at achieving a complete understanding of the graffiti subculture, both of the subculture’s characteristics and society’s criminalization of graffiti. Moreover, Ferrell’s willingness to both participate in the subculture on its own terms and his ability to realistically analyze the culture, make it the best book I have read on the subject of graffiti art.

The first half of the book describes the graffiti subculture, covering the various art forms, for example, discussing the differences between pieces and throw-ups, the logistical aspects of writing graffiti–how some crews paint and how people tag, and discussing the social and communicative aspects of graffiti, such as the relationships between people in the graffiti scene and the way in which art functions as a form of communication connecting the subculture. While the book is centered on the somewhat unlikely location of Denver, in that Denver is not well-known for its graffiti scene, much of the discussion is universal enough that it remains relevant for people wanting to learn more about the graffiti scene as a whole. Ferrell relies on both his firsthand experience and numerous interviews with graffiti artists to develop his discussion of the graffiti scene. Of the books I have read on graffiti, Crimes of Style is the most balanced–at once capturing the allure of writing graffiti while remaining realistic in assessing the subculture’s limitations.

The second half of the book focuses on the criminalization of graffiti, by looking at the efforts of the city of Denver to criminalize graffiti and in the final chapter, presenting a framework for which this criminalization can be understood. Ferrell develops the idea of “anarchist criminology” to explain why city officials in Denver find graffiti to be such a threat, as it seems unlikely that city officials could consider people spray painting artwork on walls and other surfaces as a threat to the power structure. While Ferrell never makes the case that graffiti is directly threatening the governmental power structure, the analysis of graffiti culture from within the framework of anarchism is quite useful, as it allows one to address the ways in which graffiti is fundamentally challenging–the disregard for private property, its participation in the debate between what constitutes private space and the best use of that space, and the frequent glorification of criminality within the subculture. It would be easy for Ferrell to project a political context onto graffiti that is not there, as many academics do when they drone on about how subcultures are a manifestation of various cultural and political theories. To his credit, Ferrell does not do this, remaining cognizant of the fact that most writers do not see graffiti as fitting into some greater political framework. Nevertheless, his theorizing is intriguing and its analysis is beneficial to understanding the subculture, and perhaps more importantly, in the event that graffiti writers read this book, it may encourage them to develop a more comprehensive analysis of the potentiality of their actions.

As a result of his actual participation in the graffiti subculture, Ferrell is able to keep Crimes of Style from being a dull academic monograph written from the distant confines of the university milieu–over-analyzing a subculture and stripping it of its vitality–a phenomenon which is all to common in academic treatments of subcultures. Consequently, Crimes of Style is an interesting read for both those who are involved in or are interested in getting involved in the graffiti subculture, as well as academics who are approaching the subject from an interest in cultural studies or criminology.

Jeff Ferrell, Crimes Of Style: Urban Graffiti and the Politics of Criminality, (Northeastern University Press, 1996).