Digital project moves graffiti from the street to the virtual world

First published at The Thunderbird

Cities have been at war with graffiti since there have been walls to paint on.

Last weekend in the downtown Woodward’s complex, however, a crowd of about 80 people gathered to celebrate graffiti. They even stopped to watch some graffiti artists do their work. Artists participating in “Pwn the Wall” — taking place in Berlin, Vancouver and Seoul — splashed their work on the web, rather than a wall, and shared it around the globe. The event showcased an interesting new possibility for the future of street art — one that allows for uncontrolled art in the public realm but that leaves no physical trace.

The event highlighted the tension that exists in most major cities. Everywhere, citizens are in disagreement over what is art, what is vandalism, and who owns the streets. Even while Pwn the Wall was attracting a steady stream of visitors to Woodward’s interior courtyard, there were crews of volunteers and city staff busy removing graffiti in other parts of the city.

Broken windows and graffiti

Street art, also known as graffiti, has always been met with mixed reactions. In the mid-1990s, inspired by the so-called broken windows theory, New York City workers began a massive campaign of removing graffiti from public spaces. The city was attempting to reduce rampant crime by restoring a sense of social order.

The City of Vancouver takes graffiti seriously. The police keep track of tags, and the minimum fine for a graffiti artist is $500.

Many communities are engaged in the struggle against graffiti. The Hastings-Sunrise Community Policing Centre, in Vancouver’s northeast corner, has been removing graffiti for over a decade. In that time, the rate of robberies in the neighbourhood has crashed, declining by 75 per cent. Clair MacGougan, the executive director of the CPC, thinks that the graffiti removal has played a part.

“If we take care of the community, the community will take care of us.”

But not everyone is keen to have the graffiti gone.

“It puts colour into the city. It makes the community more interesting,” said Sienna Lockerlow, an art student who attended the event with a friend.

Featured artist “The Dark,” at right, explains the technology to a curious passerby.

Street research

City efforts have had their effect. The organizers of Pwn the Wall noticed a shortage of street art in Vancouver. Mirae Rosner, an articulate artist with a background in urban geography and performance art, laments the loss of graffiti – an “open source” media format – from the street.

“We wanted to go out and look at a lot of graffiti when we got here, and we were a bit disappointed because there’s a lot of stuff painted over,” recalled Rosner, a primary organizer.

Rosner is a member of the Graffiti Research Lab, a collective with the motto: “Urban Communication for Urban Commandos.” The collective designs technology to share with street artists around the world. The Pwn the Wall exhibition made use of an interactive projection screen, as well as software to share art from all three locations simultaneously during the event.

That’s the kind of high-level street art that even MacGougan, working hard in Hastings-Sunrise to remove graffiti, can appreciate.

“There’s a lot of value to it,” he agreed. He says what the centre removes is different. “It’s not what [graffiti artists] are doing most of the time.”

What stays, and what goes

Two forms of street art, “tags” and a sticker, adorn a temporary wall on West Hastings Street.

What the policing centre tries to focus on are “tags,” often ugly jumbles of letters scrawled in spray paint. However, if business owners in Hastings-Sunrise are unhappy with graffiti that appears on a wall, regardless of the type, centre volunteers will try to remove it at no charge to the business owner. Usually owners are responsible for the cleanup.

MacGougan draws a distinction between this kind of graffiti and art that has a broader appeal. The centre has even hired graffiti artists to paint muralsin the neighbourhood.

But for Rosner, graffiti is about participating in the visual experience of being in a city. Urbanites are constantly surrounded by commercial logos, language and symbols, she explained, so graffiti is a way of putting another message out into the public realm.

“We’re trying to subvert the usual media ecology that we’re used to.”

Middle ground

Pwn the Wall showed that there is potential for a middle ground between street art and the maintenance of order in the city.

Although reluctant to make any predictions, MacGougan believes that Pwn the Wall “makes sense, if it reduces graffiti on the street.”

“If it’s another way for artists to show and express themselves and for other people to enjoy that art, I think it’s a great idea.”

Pwn the Wall was streamed simultaneously in Vancouver, Berlin, and Seoul. The event’s open-source technology and public venue maintained graffiti’s democratic nature; the electronic format, meanwhile, has the potential to create a space where graffiti leaves no physical trace. But not all traces are physical.

“It’s interesting to me in a way that it would leave a trace,” mused Rosner, “with people’s memories of the city.”

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