New police initiative ignores the true nature and art of graffiti

Audrey Larcher

As cities expand, their graffiti art communities tend to follow suit. Austin’s rapidly transforming urban landscape is no exception — the past few years of our city’s outward sprawl gave birth to popular tags like Bort and anarchycat.

But the over 600 graffiti clean-up requests filed with Austin Police Department is evidence that not everyone’s a fan. Coordinating with the Austin Youth Development Program, APD recently went public with a plan to respond to these requests and scrub the city clean. In an effort to keep the creative spirit alive, the plan offers designated spaces to feature students’ art on the street.

Although this alternative option comes from a place of good faith, it inherently ignores the unique nature of graffiti art. By equating a tag to any other portrait or sketch created in a studio, APD glazes over the art form’s guerilla roots.

While other visual artists may seek to incorporate the mood of a moment into their final products, graffiti art is intrinsically defined by a sense of “here and now.” While a painter or sculptor is able to work on a piece for as long as desired, taggers are forced to execute their art in a short burst of time to dodge cops and maintain anonymity. The artist’s raw presence and surrounding environment are woven into the art without time for edits, creating a unique and much more personal tie to the city.

Street art is also democratic in a way that other art forms are not. Whether walking to the park, commuting to work, or driving to the grocery store, anyone on the street can catch a glimpse of graffiti and tags in a way that art behind museum walls do not. Austinites of all artistic tastes are exposed to tags, and anyone has the ability to cover up a tag and replace it with something else.

This characteristic of graffiti art does not translate into APD’s plan, wherein art would be selected by an unknown process and promoted behind glass indefinitely. Even in different alternatives like the Hope Outdoor Gallery, the element of spontaneity is missing. By concentrating and giving the art a designated space, the rebellious freedom of tagging is eliminated.

APD has to respond to graffiti clean-up requests. To do otherwise would be ignoring the community. But in all likelihood, APD’s initiative to showcase students’ art will not hinder graffiti’s prevalence. Taggers go into projects knowing their marks will soon be washed away. So as APD offers their restrictive art spaces, the cycle of tagging, washing away and re-tagging will continue on.

Larcher is a Plan II and economics sophomore from Austin. Follow her on Twitter @AudreyLarcher.