Street Art - Erase it or embrace it?
By Mayor Gary D. Leitzell
Graffiti has been around in one form or another for thousands of years. Walls in Pompeii have such slogans as “Lucius pinxit” carved into them, which translates “Lucius painted this.” For many, graffiti has been a way to demonstrate immortality since the carvings outlast the lifetime of the artist. Today we have spray paint instead of chisels and that has produced at least three categories of “graffiti artist.”
First, there are territorial markings, or gang-related graffiti. Much like the armies of ancient times displaying the bodies of enemies impaled upon stakes along the roads to ward off potential conquering armies, these symbolic markings are designed to tell other gangs that they are in the wrong area and should leave it well alone.
Then there are the "taggers" who paint the same word or symbol in a single color all over an area for a variety of reasons, including the firmly held belief that what they do is art. I heard once after being caught tagging, one young man stated that he felt that people would miss his work if he stopped.
The third category is the "spray can muralist" or the true street artist. These are the people who artistically paint their brand in multiple colors in some of the most awkward but visible places on the planet. They likely began as taggers but took more pride in their brand.
Ancient cultures accepted graffiti as a fact of life. Much of the graffiti on the walls of Pompeii wasn't artistic but utilized more as a means of self-expression. Today it seems that spray-painted graffiti is not acceptable in any form; however, when concentrated in a single area and permitted to occur it can add a colorful splash to the cityscape.
Dayton is not as badly tagged as some other cities, but the thing that angers me more than anything about tagging is the wanton disregard for private property and the vandalism. If you do something that damages property or costs another person money as a result of your action, then you should not be doing it. Tagging buildings costs property owners money in the form of paint and labor to remove the tag.
Public street art on the other hand, in the right locations could change the dynamic of the location. In Dayton, we have at least two locations where street art can be viewed and admired -- on Front Street and the "Linden Wall," which is adjacent to the bike path near Linden Avenue. Garden Station at Fourth and Wayne Avenues has murals painted on the railway wall and wall panels depicting scenes under the bridge adjacent to the park. More murals are permitted to go up at Third and Webster Streets this fall and I am organizing an event at the end of September that will get the railway wall behind the PNC 2nd Street market painted by spray can muralists because it will change the dynamic of that area where we now have an outdoor market featuring local artisans operating until November.
While we can't stop the gang tags unless we eliminate the gangs, artistic graffiti is acceptable in appropriate places. But we cannot tolerate the vandalism caused by tagging.
I have had an idea for some time and would be interested in some feedback from you, the citizens. This wouldn't be a government initiative, it would be a community initiative and its only purpose would be to control graffiti and confine it to areas where it would be relevant and tolerated. If there were plywood boards mounted on the sides of buildings in prominent areas provided for the sole purpose of expressing one’s self, I wonder if it would curb the urge to spray paint masonry surfaces where painting out the tag looks almost as bad as the tag itself. These boards would be classified as decriminalized freedom of expression zones. Marking the boards at any time of day or night would be permitted but marking any other surface would result in hefty fines and punishment if caught. The fines could be severe since the act of vandalizing with graffiti has become unnecessary with the creation of decriminalized zones. Youth with the urge to spray their brand would be able to perfect their skill in broad daylight without having to risk their lives on railroad bridges or rooftops in the dark. They might also develop an audience. Would-be poets could post their work in public for all who are interested, to read. I am not wanting a city covered in graffiti; we already have that, just drive up East Third Street. What I want is a city with a unique style and eclectic flare that exists nowhere else in Ohio. Street art and expression could be used to add vitality to a neighborhood that would attract an artistic class, which generally sparks the initiative to revitalize a neighborhood. So, should we erase graffiti forever leaving painted rectangular patches on walls throughout the city or embrace it and use street inspired art to add another flavor to our world-class city?
Reach Dayton Mayor Gary D. Leitzell at (937) 333-3653 or GaryLeitzell@DaytonCityPaper.com.