FBI Investigating Fire and Anti-Obama Graffiti in Kentwood

'Die Obama' Graffiti Near Fire in Grand Rapids

Yesterday, the Grand Rapids Press reported that the FBI and the ATF are investigating a fire and three instances of anti-Obama graffiti in Kentwood. According to the newspaper and other media reports, graffiti was found on three homes, including the one that was burrned. The graffiti read “die oboma [sic].” The newspaper reports that all of the homes targeted were occupied by African-Americans and WOOD TV 8 reported that at least two of the homes had Obama signs in their yard during the election.

The FBI is not calling the fire a hate crime and the Kentwood fire inspector has not ruled out all accidental causes.

Racial Attacks and Harassment since Obama’s Election

Since his election in November of last year, there have been several instances of anti-Obama graffiti mixed with racist symbols. Earlier this month, media in Texas reported that he Secret Service was investigating graffiti of Swastikas and the phrase “Obama will die” on homes under construction .

The Southern Poverty Law Center–which tracks racist groups–says that in the wake of Obama’s election there were over 200 racist incidents. These have included graffiti, harassment, and assaults.

Earlier this week, the federal government announced a plea in the case of a man attacked three African-Americans on election night. Ralph Nicoletti will serve twelve years in prison for the assaults.

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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.

Nazi Gang Graffiti in Grand Rapids’ Belknap Lookout Neighborhood

A wave of gang graffiti connected to the Nazi Low Riders–a violent prison and street gang with origins in California–has been documented in Grand Rapids’ Belknap Lookout neighborhood. It is the second wave of Nazi graffiti in Grand Rapids in the past several months.

A number of swastikas, appearing either alone or with the letters “NLR” have been observed in Grand Rapids’ Belknap Lookout neighborhood. The “NLR” letters stand for “Nazi Low Riders” and are a reference to a prison and street gang that has its origins in California’s youth penal system. While it is impossible to say if the graffiti indicates the presence of an actual group affiliated with the Nazi Low Riders, it is the second time in the past several months that a wave of Nazi graffiti has been documented in Grand Rapids. In October of 2006, graffiti associated with the white supremacist White Aryan Resistance movement was documented in downtown’s Heartside neighborhood.

As is the case with all neo-Nazi and white supremacist activity, the graffiti should be taken seriously, especially in light of the Nazi Low Riders historical involvement in violent attacks against people of color. In March of 1999, two members of the Nazi Low Riders in Lancaster, California murdered an African-American Wal-Mart employee with a screwdriver. In 1996, another Nazi Low Riders member beat an African-American teenager as part of a “mission” to “rid the streets of Lancaster of African Americans.” A similar attack took place in 1996, when five members of the gang attacked a 12-year old Hispanic male in a video arcade. Multiple attacks took place in 1995, with members attacking two African-American teenagers with machetes, bludgeoning an African-American homeless man to death, and firing a gun at car occupied by African-Americans.

The group was formed in the late 1970s by white supremacist John Stinson, himself affiliated with the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang, at the California Youth Authority at the Preston Youth Correctional Facility in Ione and at the Youth Training School in Chino, California. Until the 1990s, the Nazi Low Riders functioned as middlemen for the Aryan Brotherhood and engaged in criminal operations affiliated with that gang, but took a more prominent role in prison violence and the drug trade following aggressive law enforcement targeting of the Aryan Brotherhood. In addition to violent attacks towards people of color within prison, members of the Nazi Low Riders have been active in the drug trade and have been especially active in the production and distribution of methamphetamine. The group has spread eastward throughout the United States as members have been paroled, although its stronghold remains in California. Estimates of membership exceeded 1,500 before a crackdown on several of its leaders in 2003. It has also formed alliances the Public Enemy Number 1 white supremacist gang and other racist gangs.

Despite occasional violent attacks, the Nazi Low Riders are not an overtly political gang according to research done by various law enforcement agencies, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Anti-Defamation League. These entities have found that while white supremacy is a component of the Nazi Low Riders’ activities, they are more of a criminal enterprise than an ideological one. NLR members rarely have ties to the political racist movement, exemplified by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazi groups such as the National Socialist Movement, nor do they have ties to the more political skinhead gangs such as the Hammerskin Nation. However, members are required to demonstrate “loyalty” to the white race, occasionally through violence against people of color. Interestingly, the group has allowed Latinos to affiliate and has made alliances with Latino gangs, although Latino members allegedly must be “half Caucasian.” The white supremacist movement has also been skeptical of the Nazi Low Riders and has frequently rejected them for being reckless and lacking a coherent ideology, while others have said that there is “nothing Nazi about them” and bemoaning the fact that Nazi Low Riders simply “hate black people” rather than articulating a developed ideological framework.

In addition to previous incidents of Nazi graffiti in Grand Rapids, it is important to place the Nazi Low Riders graffiti within the overall context of activity by the racist right in West Michigan. In recent years, local groups affiliated with the National Socialist Movement, the National Alliance, and the Council of Conservative Citizens have distributed racist literature and organized demonstrations.

Graffiti Website Redesigned as Graffiti Declines in Grand Rapids

The Grand Rapids Graffiti and Street Art website has been redesigned even as graffiti continues to decline in the city. The days of the Grand Rapids Police Department talking about draconian measures such as requiring arrested artists to wear electronic tethers or prohibiting the sale of spray paint as part of an organized graffiti crackdown appear to be gone, with artists instead getting caught based on the contents of their profiles on social networking websites and the places once favored by artists being rapidly gentrified. The photographs collected on the website portray an art form that is far more complex than what is described in the media, where graffiti writing is reduced to being simply “graffiti” as poorly scrawled names around the city. Moreover, the media’s overly simplified portrayal of graffiti has shaped the discourse into one of crime and control, rather than looking at other issues affecting downtown such as gentrification or the lack of outlets for artistic expression by youth in the Grand Rapids area.

Nazi Graffiti in Grand Rapids Tied to White Supremacist Movement

A recent increase in Nazi graffiti in Grand Rapids has been tied to the racist White Aryan Resistance (WAR) movement, a white supremacist group that has a long history both of advocating and using physical violence.

A recent wave of Nazi graffiti in downtown Grand Rapids is tied to the organized white supremacist movement according to research conducted by Media Mouse. The graffiti, primarily consisting of swastikas and the letters “WAR,” is connected to the White Aryan Resistance (WAR) movement as well as a new group that appears to have formed in the Heartside area, the Heartside Boot Boyz. The Heartside Boot Boyz graffiti is accompanied by either a swastika or the logo for the World War II era Nazi Schutzstaffel (SS). The graffiti is part of an increase in neo-Nazi and white supremacist activity in the state of Michigan over the past two years. In April, the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement (NSM) held their national in convention in Grand Rapids and a national rally in Lansing. The NSM has been active across the state, including in Grand Rapids, conducting a variety of leafleting and recruiting actions. The National Alliance has also been active in Michigan, as has the Council of Conservative Citizens, a racist group that has organized against immigrants and in support of the anti-affirmative action Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI).

However, unlike these membership organizations, less is known about the activities of White Aryan Resistance and the Heartside Boot Boyz. White Aryan Resistance is a neo-Nazi and white supremacist organization that formed in the 1983 by former Knights of the Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon and influential racist Tom Metzger. In addition to being involved with the Ku Klux Klan (KKK)—work that placed him in prison for 45 days in 1982 for burning a cross—Metzger has been involved with the John Birch Society and was ordained as a minister by the New Christian Crusade Church, a church involved in the white supremacist Christian Identity movement. White Aryan Resistance, while less influential than it once was, has long been a major force in the racist right. Metzger was one of the first white supremacists to organize racist skinheads in the 1980s, has been involved in the international skinhead movement, has organized extensively within the United States’ prison population, operates The Insurgent self-described as the “most racist newspaper on earth,” has made extensive use of new forms of media (computer bulletin board systems in the 1980s, public access television in the early 1990s, and the Internet in the mid-1990s), and has articulated a form of fascism known as “Third Position” that is neither rightist or leftist, rejecting both capitalism and communism. This “Third Position” ideology seeks to overthrow the United States government and replace it with a nation built around a white supremacist ideology, while also distorting leftwing politics, with White Aryan Resistance describing itself as revolutionary and supporting “white working class” militancy including opposition to United States military actions abroad, supporting union activity, women’s rights (to a certain degree), and advocating for environmentalist policies. Of course, the racism is obvious in Metzger’s Third Position fascism, with the Nazi imagery, racist cartoons and “jokes,” and declarations that “WAR is strictly racist” and that race is the primary issue. However, despite its obvious racism, Third Position ideology is a serious threat as its adherents often attempt to organize working-class youth directly while many left or “progressive” movements ignore such populations, while white supremacists ideologies appear to provide a potential outlet for their anger.

The strategy of White Aryan Resistance and Tom Metzger is one that has both the potential for and a history of violence. Beginning with his work in the Klan in the 1970s, Metzger led his followers towards violence by organizing armed Klan patrols to capture undocumented immigrants along the United States-Mexico border. Metzger organized an armed “security” force that operated for the Klan and clashed with police and anti-Klan demonstrators. The Anti-Defamation League asserts that Metzger also trained Klan members in guerilla warfare and paramilitary activities. The rhetoric of Metzger and his White Aryan Resistance movement, whose The Insurgent newspaper bears the slogan “the most racist newspaper on earth,” has occasionally incited adherents to violence. Perhaps the most famous case was in 1988 when a skinhead gang in Portland, Oregon, murdered an Ethiopian student after being trained by a White Aryan Resistance recruiter. Metzger praised the incident, claiming that the skinheads were doing their “civic duty” (source). Metzger was eventually found responsible for this killing and a jury awarded $12.5 million in damages to the family of the murdered student, a fine that Metzger continues to pay. Metzger has also praised actions such as racially motivated killings by individuals.

While the Portland case reduced White Aryan Resistance’s influence, Metzger has continued to develop it into a loose network for white supremacists and still advocates a violent white supremacy. However, instead of continuing to function as a membership organization, Metzger and White Aryan Resistance now advocate “lone wolf” attacks by racists against the system as part of a “leaderless resistance.” This activity, which cannot be traced as easily by law enforcement officials, has become prominent in some areas of the white supremacist movement, with white supremacists adopting the idea of individual or small group activity in order to avoid state repression. White Aryan Resistance also urges white supremacist activists acting under the White Aryan Resistance banner to never talk to the police and posts tips for dealing with the police and avoiding state harassment on their website.

Grand Rapids Police Arrest Two Graffiti Artists

The media is reporting that the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) recently arrested two graffiti artists. As has been the case with other such arrests, the media and the GRPD are once again claiming that graffiti threatens the city of Grand Rapids.

According to extensive reporting in the local corporate press, the Grand Rapids Police Department (GRPD) recently apprehended two graffiti artists in the downtown area. Although the two are both only 17 years old, they are facing possible jail time and restitution after admitting to twelve different tags around the city that the allegedly resulted in thousands of dollars of damage.

The media has fully accepted the police department’s view that graffiti is a plague on the city and that the art form somehow threatens the fabric of the community. While it is often difficult to defend the specific actions of graffiti artists, some of whom occasionally chose to write on questionable targets such as the offices of non-profit organizations, the police department’s claims that graffiti threatens the community are ridiculous as the minor forms of primarily apolitical property destruction make no direct threat on the community. In response to recent arrests, Lieutenant Ralph Mason of the GRPD was quoted on WOOD TV 8 as saying that “we’ve got to send a message that Grand Rapids is not the place to do this,” and as was the case last winter when the GRPD promised a “graffiti crackdown,” the idea of “making an example” of the arrests has been widely touted by the media and the police while people interviewed on WOOD TV 8 praised increased video surveillance as a graffiti deterrent (related: map of video surveillance cameras in downtown Grand Rapids). As has historically been the case with reporting on graffiti, the media has willingly adopted the GRPD’s view that graffiti is an attack on property that is “not fair” and is costing property owners a considerable amount of money just because the artists “get a rush… putting markings on walls, damaging property,” according to Lt. Mason. Moreover, the questionable choice of tagging the buildings of local nonprofits has created a situation in which graffiti artists are able to be pit against the downtown community and thus their arrests garner considerable media coverage while more substantial issues, such as the gentrification brought on by upscale development projects, are being ignored.

Aside from highlighting the local media’s penchant for sensationalizing crime, a cursory look around the city and at the Grand Rapids Graffiti and Street Art web site show that graffiti and street art in Grand Rapids has been largely dormant over the past year. In addition, the artists’ unnecessary confessions and subsequent jail threats shows the need of all people, whether knowingly breaking the law or not, to be fully aware of their rights, particularly when arrested and being questioned by the police. According to the American Civil Liberties Union:

You have the right to remain silent and to talk to a lawyer before you talk to the police. Tell the police nothing except your name and address. Don’t give any explanations, excuses or stories. You can make your defense later, in court, based on what you and your lawyer decide is best.

For more information on your rights when dealing with police, visit the ACLU’s web site on police practices and consider carrying a copy of their “know your rights” card.

Poster Pasting Action Draws Attention in Grand Rapids

don't buy corporate

For the past few weeks, telephone poles in Grand Rapids’ northeast side have been covered in political posters. Rather than advertising a specific political candidate, the posters have generally promoted what can at best be described as a “liberal” political point of view. The posters, the majority of which are simple 8.5×11 black-and-white photocopies, contain a variety of slogans and facts relating to international and national events. Their message ranges from the vague “evolve” and “start cooperation” to specific posters about the killing of civilians in the war on terror and the United States use of torture. While it is impossible to evaluate how effective this particular action is, given the size and frequency of the posters, it is likely that many people have considered their message. Moreover, at Tuesday’s Grand Rapids Public Schools’ board meeting, board member Cindy Mueller cited one of the posters reading “FEAR: False Evidence Appearing Real” as a way to dismiss critics of the GRPS school closing plan. This mention suggests that perhaps the messages on the poster have successfully reached a large number of people.

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

Art by DUSA.BYH

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.

Conclusion

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.