Artists or vandals?

Walking along any random day in Asheville, one may choose to look at the many buildings, the multivarious concoction of people, the ground — or sometimes, even, the writing on the walls.

A great many people consider graffiti, and other such forms of expression, a public nuisance. The truth is, though, these modern hieroglyphics reveal much more than they seem — exposing what is often repressed by society. Social injustice, self-expression — and even timeless knowledge — are known to show up through acts of “vandalism.” This modern art form is generally regarded by the present social system as destructive (rather than creative), antisocial, uncivilized, and/or believe it to be gang-related — even though few graffiti artists are gangsters. The problem of gangsterism does not really pertain to Asheville, a relatively small town with a tight sense of community. The main issue at hand is that the younger generation is resorting to anonymous acts of self expression — violating property with the use of spray paint, markers, stickers, etc. The current solution seems to be to throw the youngsters in jail, though seldom does this sort of rehabilitation work. It is our responsibility as a community to not turn these young artists into criminals.

Many people reject graffiti as a senseless act of rebellion, possibly due to negative coverage by the media. Vandals are held in low regard in social opinion — sometimes called the lowest form of criminal. But a criminal is a criminal, to those who label, and this means little respect for someone who merely wishes to get a point across. It is true that graffitists “injure” property, showing little respect for long-established social boundaries.

No attempts have yet been made to reconcile and/or understand the purpose of these vandals/artists in the Asheville community, though many of them have spent time in jail as punishment for actions they believe in. One graffiti artist in contact with the author has explained, “Jail just made me more pissed off at the system than anything else.” This kind of attitude is making the situation worse, though it is the common sentiment among every kind of “criminal.” Rather than turn a person into a criminal, it is in the best interest of the community to find a more positive rehabilitative solution for those who have not found a legal form of expression.

Often times, a person who is labeled begins to act like the stereotype they embody. Those who are looked at as criminals begin to fill that role in the society which calls them that — a phenomenon which is no good in healing what seems to be a problem. When someone is labeled a vandal by the police and the courts, they may begin to feel like one. Is it possible to recognize the creativity in a person who commits an act of shameless art and call them an artist? Sure, there must be consequences for those caught in the act, but could we (as a community) find an alternate destination for the “vandals” who are adding color to the concrete?

Jail does nothing except incite more resistance from those who are jailed, making it more harmful than good. In place of jail, it may be more appropriate to help a graffiti artist find a more acceptable outlet, such as art school, graphic design program or other creative means to expression. If the city were to donate walls — such as the one near the Social Services building — I know many kids who could accomplish beautiful murals and further beautify the city. Of course, the city would not be promoting graffiti, but rather finding a middle ground with those who are just in it for the expression.

Many people who use spray paint as an artistic medium do so on walls that are not “theirs” to color. This act is one committed by many younger graffitists during adolescence, a phase marked by self-knowledge and ego development. For this type of graffitist, the goal is to “get up” as much as (s)he can, in an effort to gain “fame” within the graffiti community. It is similar to police who gain respect for a large number of important arrests, which may do more harm than graffiti in the long run. Though this ego phase is … quite rebellious against society, it is not a criminal phase of development, and still quite natural. Rather than teach these youngsters that expression is wrong, it is much more beneficial to redirect their focus onto a more acceptable outlet for creative release. Let them know where legal walls are (such as the temporary skateboarding park on top of the Haywood Street Parking Garage), and teach them productive — rather than destructive — methods of self-expression. It is quite possible for the community … to ameliorate the graffiti situation by taking steps to redirect the focus of “art vandals”.

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