Graffiti: Art vs. Vandalism


Keith Haring started painting on subway stations, using nothing but chalk on blank advertising panels, matted in black. He thought of the subways as his personal laboratory; New York commuters were fascinated by his work and would watch him design as they waited for their trains. Later he favored bright yellows, reds and purples, in designs that represented unity and vitality.

Haring’s first official art show was held in 1981 at the Westbeth Painters Space, one that would turn out to be the first of many.

He helped with numerous public projects: painting for public health centers, creating sets and backdrops for theaters in NYC and creating Billboards in the heart of Time Square.

In the last year of Harings life, he established the Keith Haring Foundation to help benefit AIDS and child related charities. He died on August 16, 1990 at the age of 31, his artistic career cut short by AIDS.

Those charities, businesses and the city of New York are still receiving the benefits for someone once considered a vandal.

More recently, TIME magazine has hired graffiti artists such as Cope2 to produce several ads for their company. According to local artist and Anchorage Museum Chief curator Julie Decker, Pop-culture as a whole is largely influenced by Graffiti artists.

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Cope2 has also designed clothing. His most recent project, licensed by the NBA, involves creating a basketball backboard. He will be collaborating with several other graffiti artists, including David Cooper and Veng. The goal is to re-imagine some of the most iconic images in basketball. These local street artists are all gathering for a show that is taking place at the One Gate Center, in Newark NJ.

“Gwen Stefani has been very successful with a line of bags graffiti inspired,” Decker added.

Though some think that the nation seems to be thriving off what they see as bold creators, the municipality of Anchorage is fighting graffiti.

“Legally, graffiti is vandalism. There is a price attached to it for cities, business owners, and others,” Decker said. “Sometimes a high price; it’s defacement and a nuisance.”

MENO, a well-known local artist has been using the streets of Anchorage as his personal canvas for roughly a year and a half. Despite his talent, he has caused both property owners and local law enforcement significant headaches, according to both Decker and Anchorage Police officer Scott Lofthouse.

Officer Lofthouses’s primary focus has been gangs, but his personal project has been working on catching some of the local non-violent taggers, and the difference between the two is significant.

“Gang members are usually tagging because they are claiming territory, they are claiming responsibility for crimes, they are issuing threats, things like that, where as taggers are doing it for the art aspect of it,” Lofthouse said. “Gang graffiti is very quick, its usually not extremely artistic because they don’t want to stand around and paint a mural, where as with taggers, well I have seen a lot of tagger art that has obviously taken hours if not multiple nights to put up, and they really do look talented.”

Lofthouse stated that vandalism is split roughly evenly between gangs and artists, but both tend to be in their late teens to early twenties.

“I think the reason MENO is so prominent is because of what he tags and where he tags,” Lofthouse said. “The Hillcrest Bridge for example. People drive down Minnesota and see that every day, and that’s of the goal for taggers, to have their art seen by the public, so it’s almost like a contest where they want to see who can the put up the most public or the most number of tags.”

The city has also seen tags from GMG (Get Money Gang), the Pinoy Tagging Association, GEEZ, and The Bayshore Boys, who tagged the Cambell Creek bike trail.

GEEZ has become boulder in recent months, and has recently tagged both sides of the railroad crossing on Diamond Boulevard.

“You know the old Mongolian beef restaurant by Red Robin, off of King Street?” Lofthouse asked, “They have a shed and have painted over it, but you can still see four foot letters of G-E-E-Z on the back of one of their little sheds.”

GEEZ is still on the loose and thriving in his hobby.

The story of the Pinoy Tagging Association (PTA) is a different matter.

The girls of PTA attended Begich Middle School and began tagging mostly around and on the school. The unusually young taggers made a mistake: they broadcasted their tagging association on the social networking site of Myspace.

“They had actually put on there page we are the Pinoy Tagging Association, PTA, and we want to be the biggest tagging group in town, so everyone go out and tag,” Lofthouse chuckled.

Catching local taggers is rare though. In the case of MENO, the chances of catching him were “one in a million,” Lofthouse said.

Graffiti Busters (GB), a national organization established in Anchorage in June of 1994, is usually quick to take down the labels of local taggers, but Lofthouse finds that that quality makes his job harder, due to the fact it becomes hard to track.

GB has had mixed success in their goal of “keeping the community clean.” The program originally started as a volunteer program run by five primary municipal employees and two alternate. This changed in the summer of 1995 when tagging was at its peak. The municipality hired two temporary employees.

A full time employee was hired early in 1998, when the program could no longer keep up with the high amount of calls 343-GONE receives. On average, GB receives six to eight hundred calls a year, and spend two to three hours removing each mural or tag.

According to Lofthouse, more painters could be caught, but it is a responsibility that lies with the community. If Anchorage residents witness tagging, he believes that they need to speak up. Unfortunately he says, the only people reporting it is the people who fall victim to taggers.

“I had one gentleman who called me. He had the south wall of his business tagged and it cost him almost $4,000 to repair and that’s just one business that got tagged,” Lofthouse said. “We had a business downtown who had seven or eight panel vans that all got tagged, and it was several thousand dollars for each vehicle to be repaired.”

Artistic taggers are not the only ones at fault. Several walls, streets, buses, bridges and electrical boxes have the words “white power” or “black power” sprayed in sloppy runny letters. These are the products of local gangs.

Gang graffiti can now be spotted all over the city.

Gang members typically start tagging close to home, then eventually become bolder and begin vandalizing farther from home. Almost every neighborhood in the city has gang members, according to Lofthouse.

Local law prohibits any form of graffiti on private or city property. Larger cities have designated areas where taggers are allowed to paint, and cities like Baltimore just flat out ignore it.

According to Baltimore police, their city has larger problems than graffiti and they find it adds color to a place that is mentally dark, as Baltimore is considered to have some of the roughest neighborhoods in the country.

“In August of last year, I went to Chicago to the National Gang Crime Research Center, and they actually had a lady present, and I haven’t been able to find her name. She was from either Chicago or Philadelphia or Detroit, someplace like that back east and they actually have a program where they have taken all the utility boxes and they have allowed these young folks to go out and paint them,” Lofthouse said.

Of course the program has rules, no profanity and no gang signs.

“Businesses or even the city could donate a wall or two, a dumpster or a utility box, and see how it works,” Lofthouse said.

Lofthouse sees this method as something for Anchorage to consider exploring in the future..
Graffiti – Images by Photo Editor

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