Way back in December I attended the second day of the Graffiti Sessions conference, hosted by UCL Urban Lab, Central St Martins' Graffiti Dialogues Network and the Southbank Centre. The aim of the conference was to open dialogues about the role of graffiti and street art in our communities, challenge the perceptions and stereotypes sometimes attributed to it, and work on shaping policy in the most helpful way for the future.
The first day, the Illegal Sessions, asked how 'cops, courts and cleaning of graffiti' could be 'more socially and economically sustainable for the publics they serve', with artists such as Ben Eine and Inkie speaking alongside barristers, visual criminologists and Colin Saysell, Detective Constable with the British Transport Police. Day two, the Legal Sessions, focused on the way that graffiti and street art practices can 'resocialise, regenerate or revitalise' communities, featuring graffiti artists Mr Sable, Sky High, Jay Edlin and Alice Pasquini as well as urban geographer Cameron McAuliffe, theorist Chantal Mouffe and grassroots organisers and educators. The third day had speakers such as Robyn Buseman from the Mural Arts Programme, community organiser and founder of BeautifulCity.ca Devon Ostrom and others, discussing how changes in policy and approach towards graffiti could be beneficial to all involved.
The whole conference had an amazing array of speakers representing many sides of the graffiti 'debate', and I found my time there eye opening, informative and engaging. The latter quality was particularly important, with care taken to avoid the conference ending up a day of being spoken 'at' rather than 'to': the audience, many of whom were researchers, artists or policy-makers themselves, were constantly invited to participate, question and engage with the topics discussed. Several very interesting points were made by audience members and opened up new areas of discussion throughout the day.
What is clear is that the way we currently approach graffiti in terms of its artistic merit and its legality isn't working: the constant clean up battle of the 'zero tolerance' policy isn't effective in terms of cost, time or effort involved. The current attitudes devalue a genuine art form, often incorrectly label street art as a 'gateway' to crime and can lead to jail time for relatively insignificant crimes. The day was a great discussion of ways to begin changing the perception of graffiti among the public, allow artists space to develop their craft, save law enforcement time and money and even bring benefits to communities in the process. For a (much!) more detailed rundown of the day, click to see the rest of the post!
The first speaker of the Legal Sessions was Dr Cameron McAuliffe, an urban geographer lecturing at the University of Western Sydney. McAuliffe primarily addressed the way we currently seem to attempt to split graffiti into 'legal' and 'illegal', noting that we need to 'move beyond the framework of legality' if we are to have meaningful conversations about the impact of street art. He spoke of the increasing criminalisation of graffiti practice and the introduction a 'zero tolerance' policy towards it - which he pointed out is expensive, time consuming, and most importantly 'doesn't result in clean and orderly cities' at all. In Sydney, even legal walls were shut down amid allegations that they encouraged the 'bleeding' of graffiti onto other local walls - but as McAuliffe explained, this doesn't help councils or artists either. Instead, it can drive older, more established artists with access to transport to find other, lower risk places to paint; the younger novices are likely to have their artistic development slowed as they find places to paint illegally anyway, or stop altogether for fear of legal repercussions. The way that graffiti is assessed usually lies on the legal/illegal 'regime of value', but in many places, the street art has 'seeped into the fabric of the neighbourhood' and is seen as part of the community - using a new 'regime of values' (aesthetic, economic, subcultural etc) could help work towards a more 'democratic' approach towards graffiti. McAuliffe has made his own proposals to the city of Sydney in terms of its approach to graffiti, including the introduction of an advisory panel in order to assess artwork under multiple regimes of value, and a 'visual data aggregator' logging good graffiti through photography in order to have positive responses recorded as well as negative ones.
The second session of the day saw us joined via a recorded video by Dotmaster, artist and founder of the NuArt festival in Stavanger, Norway. NuArt began by piggybacking on its sister festival, NuMusic, but after a blockbuster show in a respected museum, the people of Stavanger became more interested and involved in the street art on show. This resulted in the festival becoming one of the biggest on offer, with an indoor exhibition and major street art pieces all over the city, free tours and a mobile app. Dotmaster talked about the way having high-quality pieces installed in the public sphere ('a gradual PR exercise') changed perceptions of the art, and that despite an official 'zero tolerance' policy, the popularity of the artwork has seen even the police 'turn a blind eye' and locals become 'protective' over the public artworks.
Lois Acton, founder of Urban Unlimited, gave an inspiring talk focusing on involving the public in community art projects. Her roots in community projects began in the 1970s, when she set up the Bermondsey Lampost Free School for children who otherwise did not attend school (Rikki, the boy featured in the film linked there, grew up to be a very successful artist in multiple fields). Acton spoke about the way that public space is being continually changed and commodified - more and more, she said, 'this space is being taken away from 'us', and now it belongs to 'them''. Her projects encourage dialogue between members of communities and also their wider world - 'as long as we stay invisible, other people make decisions about our lives'. Her principal focus was on the Stanwell Project, which evolved out of the decision to demolish World War II housing in the village of Stanwell. Intended to exist only temporarily, the buildings had remained homes to people for decades longer than intended, and with their loss, many of the community faced the loss of lifelong homes where some had even been born. The Stanwell Project united 11 different social groups in the community, who came together with graffiti artists including Dane, Prime, Solo One, Mode 2 and Sonia to create a huge mural on the hoardings of the demolition site. The project showed how areas of the community previously fairly separate could be united through street art, and end with a piece of work which improves the neighbourhood and engages its inhabitants.
The next speaker was Henry Shaftoe, an urban designer with a 'particular interest in making public spaces safe, welcoming, diverse and inclusive'. Shaftoe's focus lay mostly on the differentiation between what people consider 'good' and 'bad' graffiti, which usually falls along the lines of what people define as 'street art' or murals (good) and 'tagging' (bad). He made an important point (one much like that of Cameron McAuliffe) about the need for an 'expansion of who decides what is good or bad', noting that currently a lot of those decisions are made by 'white, middle class, middle aged men who live in Pinner'. He used the example of Bristol, which had previously employed a 'clean & green' team - nicknamed 'clean & grey' - to remove the city's graffiti. However, upon surveying the public, an overwhelming number wanted the art to remain on the streets; and today Bristol has a reputation as one of the best cities for street art. Interestingly, he pointed out that the 'criminal damage' law many graffiti artists are prosecuted under specifies 'destruction or devaluation of property' - nothing about the issues of permission or trespass which are often brought up in discussions. So, he asked, what happens if the graffiti actually increases value? This is often exemplified by the covering of Banksy pieces in plastic, or their sale in galleries.
Jay Edlin's personal account of life in the early 1970s graffiti scene of New York was, for me, the stand-out session of the day. Whilst the rest of the talks were incredibly interesting, the majority addressed graffiti from an academic or community point of view; Edlin's lay in the real history and context of graffiti as an art form, specifically including the traditional handwriting often dismissed when described 'tagging' in today's street art scene. His talk gave a true insight into the social environment which his graffiti grew out of: a 'sense that something was wrong', but having 'no revolution to sign up to'. Contrary to the other speakers, Edlin's focus lay in the experience, history and personal reasoning behind his involvement in graffiti: the thrill of rebellion, the potential to become respected and renowned by your peers, the opportunity to challenge yourself and develop your style.