Saving face: Asheville’s great graffiti scare

The city’s current tack amounts to exploiting artists’ work while ignoring them and pushing societal homogeneity. There’s a better way.

Photo by Zen Sutherland.

“It’s a waste of time debating the merits of illegal graffiti,” says Gus Cutty, a local muralist and street artist, but that has not stopped the argument from raging on.

Of course, there are always at least two sides to every debate. When it comes to the subject of graffiti there are lots of voices shouting about why this art form is cause for grave concern.

As reported in an Asheville Citizen-Times piece about the ongoing argument, the perspective of city officials and many area property owners is that graffiti leads to more graffiti, lowers property taxes, harms businesses and gives a negative perception of an area. However, from an artist’s perspective Cutty, also quoted in the piece, rightly notes that, “the real issue here is the misconception that graffiti is a sign of a degrading society. In fact, the vandalism debated today in Asheville is a sign of a thriving youth culture in a city notorious for its lack of safe, encouraging alternatives for young people.”

One thing is certain; graffiti is a heated subject in Asheville right now. So much so that property owners and city officials have sought out stiffer penalties for the perpetrators of said defacement.

At an April meeting of the Council of Independent Business Owners, Asheville City Council member Jan Davis discussed a number of symptoms at the forefront of this issue. This includes absentee property owners, people who just don’t care, and a community filled with people with “a little bit of anarchy in them.” The CIBO members and business owners in attendance were outraged about the issue, one called taggers “pricks” and another bragged of threatening to break their arms if he caught them.

Some business owners and decision-makers are so livid over the subject that it would never occur to them that the underlying cause of graffiti is a systematic decay of arts and cultural investment from all levels, leaving creative young people and artists operating on very low income with minimal recourse.

The federal government decreases the availability of funds for the arts, and that trickles down through state and local budgets. Schools have been eliminating arts programming for years. Now we are left with no outlet for public expression and an obvious lack of social engagement in the further development of culture in our youth.

Property owners see criminals, not artists. So how do we as a community come together to find a solution that not only presents a safe environment, but also allows youth and artists to develop their potential? There are multiple solutions in front of us, but recognizing them is going to take shifting the debate to embrace the opportunities and challenges to incorporate art — and away from the need to lock up every artist as a felon or break their arms.

In recent years, Asheville has enjoyed national recognition for being a desirable destination on a number of levels. The city is on countless top 10 lists, often because it’s depicted as an eclectic, unique, artsy place to visit or live. The Chamber of Commerce and the Convention of Visitors Bureau often utilize images taken from creative outdoor events, murals, and other public art works in an effort to visually “brand” that which makes our city highly marketable.

These advertising efforts draw “3 million overnight leisure visitors annually,” according to the CVB. Two percent of those visitors come here for arts and crafts. Additionally, three percent come for festivals and events, one percent for music or performing arts, and one percent come for a culinary experience (which, in my estimation, is also a very specialized art/craft).

While the images used to market the city are garnered from events and public art works created by our incredible creative community and are used to draw masses of people to Asheville, there remains a great deal of misunderstanding surrounding the identity and value of those who created them or, more importantly, why.

There is also a major, damaging disconnect between the artist and the city that prides itself on being a place that has an enormous artist population.

Asheville has a long history of drawing artists and “anarchists.” Black Mountain College, founded in 1933, drew some of the world’s most radical minds of the time. Many of them had to flee from their own countries due to political ostracism, particularly Nazi-decreed “degeneracy.”

Artists and thinkers like Buckminster Fuller, Josef Albers, Walter Gropius, and Willem de Kooning came to Asheville to teach and inspire others and they left an indelible mark on American art history as well as on the cultural landscape of this city. From this liberal arts cornerstone came some amazing artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Cy Twombly whose styles were pre-cursors to modern street art, pop art — and graffiti.

While on the surface it seems that there is support for artists‚ their work is certainly proudly touted when the city is advertised to others, the bureaucracy of this municipality has hacked away at governmental support, leaving Asheville with nothing more than the Public Art & Cultural Commission to even evaluate or address issues that relate to our community’s artists.

As budgets get tighter, the city sees the arts as an easily expendable line item. There was once a city staff position to handle cultural affairs, but it’s gone now.

Instead of realizing the issues this creates, city officials have instead bragged on a number of occasions that the creative sector doesn’t really need city support as it seems to be doing fine all by itself. There is also a notably weak relationship between city government, the Chamber of Commerce, the CVB, Buncombe County government, and local arts organizations. Each of those groups works independently, continually divesting resources for our creative sector instead of finding a unified approach that would actually benefit artists. Herein lies a problem.

As an artist myself, and someone who is passionate about art’s value in the public sphere, I believe there’s a need to create dialogue — and change the way our city’s political culture deals with art.

I have sat on the Public Art & Cultural Commission to represent the needs of local artists. I have run an arts non-profit and helped run a community festival representing the best of Asheville’s artists and performers. I have worked with a number of people who have shed blood, sweat, and tears to make a living as an artist. I know many who work full-time jobs as servers, bartenders, dishwashers, cooks, or other service-oriented trades to make ends meet.

What they do in their spare time and with what little spare cash they have is to create a visual expression of what their life is like, and it often manifests as street art or graffiti.

Michael DeNotto’s article, Street art and graffiti notes that scholars who’ve analyzed street art for decades recognize that graffiti is “a legitimate reaction to injustice and disenfranchisement, a cry for revolution, a way to create awareness of socio-political issues, an expression of hope for the future, an effort to reclaim public spaces, and an attempt to beautify the urban environment.”

Street art is, by its nature, ephemeral. The authorities often want to eradicate street art because it is perceived as vandalism. Additionally, street art often raises questions that our public and political figures would prefer not to be asked.

While District Attorney Ron Moore estimates “about a third of those convicted for graffiti worked downtown washing dishes, cooking, whatever”, and works to get graffiti offenses turned into felonies, I wonder when it will dawn upon the “authorities” and politicians that the so-called “perpetrators” have something valuable to say.

When will the voice of the underserved finally be heard? When will Asheville understand that people relegated to work in notoriously underpaid positions and misguided youth, who are fed up with the many problems they face, are visually expressing defiance for the city’s neglect of their needs both in an economic sense and an artistic sense?

Meanwhile, CIBO and city officials complain that graffiti is a “disgrace” and “a threat to public safety” and the city’s new graffiti ordinance, passed 6-1, claims that “graffiti vandalism has sufficient negative impact on the economic vitality and quality of life of our community” and is willing to spend up to $300,000 this year to see to its removal.

City government fails to recognize that the reason graffiti occurs is as a direct result of a bad economy and declining quality of life for artists. If the money invested in cleaning up graffiti were invested in commissioning artists to create meaningful, intentional works in public spaces, graffiti would be reduced significantly and we might actually have a community dialogue that didn’t just involve politicians and business owners.

Of course, the issues most pertinent to the mending of our social fiber are often exposed by artists. Hence, graffiti rises out of the repercussions of city policies that value property owners’ rights more than the rights of low-income service workers, young people, or artists, creating a major class divide. Our city’s graffiti speaks to the lack of investment made in the creative sector or education systems as a result of having no understanding of its true value.

Graffiti allows the artist a sense of identity in an environment that fosters anonymity and homogeneity, and by reclaiming unoccupied public spaces it draws attention to the need to cultivate our diversity while actually being inclusive when determining what will become of our community places.

Artists are often exploited for their expression of authenticity in order to advertise a particularly attractive cultural milieu. They define the “brand” that has become Asheville, only to receive minimal support or municipal investment in return. It is important to recognize that while a business owner curses and verbally threatens a graffiti artist’s safety, the real tragedy is the government’s failure to see that collaborative efforts between the disparate parties, property owners and artists could result in some real solutions.

The current trend in arts community grants like ArtPlace, Ford Foundation, and NEA’s Our Town revolve around “the arts playing an explicit and intentional role as part of strategies to help shape communities’ social, physical, and economic futures,” as ArtPlace puts it. One must note that Asheville’s applications to the NEA Our Town grant have been passed over several times. The reason? Our inability to be inclusive and come together with a cohesive plan incorporating all of our city’s resources.

If local government, tourism agencies, artists and non-profits could ever come together to envision integrating arts into our city planning, the outcome would result in a cultural vibrancy and mutual respect for the treatment of our public visual spaces. If our efforts to grow a city that is burgeoning and healthy for all do not immediately address our disjointed methodology and conclude that our diversity and creativity markedly improve our environment, hostility and vandalism will continue. We, as a community, must all come to the table and create a solution that allows every aspect of our great city’s voice to be heard

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