Wake up to skateboarders and graffiti culture

In response to Grady Smith’s letter in the Feb. 23 issue, I should like to offer a defense on behalf of Asheville’s skater and graffiti-artist population — plus a few words of advice to Smith and other downtown merchants who take a dim view of the arrival of the new skatepark.

First of all, Smith noted concerns about a supposed increase in graffiti since the opening of the temporary park atop the Civic Center garage. He sounded the same old stereotype about graffiti that we’ve all heard for way too long, belittling an artistic expression born out of a culture which is still, for the most part, misunderstood. Graffiti has its roots in the inner-city ghettos of America — and, yes, some of the graffiti “tags” are territorial markers for gangs. This type of graffiti is commonly known as graffiti writing. But what Smith and many others may not realize is the larger, more popular type, called graffiti art. In the beginning, kids and young adults painted elaborate murals on trains, overpasses, buildings, etc. For many of these graffiti artists, this was their only outlet for artistic expression.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I’m not encouraging kids to go out and paint obscenities on storefronts around town; I’m simply encouraging the merchants to open their minds to the artistic expressions of Asheville’s youth. I was arrested for painting a rather large mural of a surfer a couple of summers ago, and I know well the sentiment towards people like me: No one likes graffiti. I had bruises on my wrists for nearly a week from the handcuffs. They slammed me, face-first, onto the hood of a cruiser, pressing and holding me down on the extremely hot surface. The police videotaped the mural, took pictures, interrogated me for nearly three hours on the “meaning” of the mural. It took five police cars (and the chief of police) to investigate the painting. I wonder how many more-serious crimes went down in those three hours that they overlooked while worring about graffiti.

I’m not a gang member, and I believe that was hard for them to understand; again, there is a negative stereotype toward graffiti artists. Only when I told the police that I was employed at a local law firm did they loosen the handcuffs and let me off the hood of the car.

I went to the owner of the shop the next day, and asked her if she liked the painting. She said, “Yes, it’s a good change from all the cuss words. I wish more kids did stuff like that. I don’t like the fact that it’s on my building, though.” So I painted over the surfer, and the charges were dropped.

Other cities, such as Raleigh, have walls designated for people to paint. The idea behind allowing people to do graffiti art is simple: If you allow it, people will utilize the area, rather than “tagging” places around town. The temporary skatepark is a wonderful example of how this idea works, and if Smith and other merchants who think graffiti isn’t an art would actually go up to the seventh floor of the Civic Center parking garage and look around, they might see what I’m talking about. Most likely, they haven’t even ventured up there, due to their preconceived, negative opinions about skaters and graffiti artists. Too bad; they’re really missing out. Since my arrest, I have painted two 6-foot-by-20 foot murals at the skatepark, on the half-pipe: one of another surfer, one of a snowboarder. Other kids have done elaborate, intricate designs.

What bothers me most about this whole issue is the extreme close-mindedness of some of the merchants. Asheville prides itself on art, whether it be music, painting, sculpture or whatever. Is all the stink due to the fact that none of the merchants can make a buck off of graffiti? It sure does seem that way. Furthermore, I am bothered by the merchants’ close-mindedness toward the skaters, the young hippies, the young punks, and the everyday Joes who hang out downtown.

Recently, a colleague of mine from UNCA surveyed all the merchants listed by the Chamber of Commerce on the issue of the video cameras all over downtown. Her research showed an overwhelming response of negativity toward the “hang-out-downtown” youth, and furthermore, indicated that installing the cameras was a joint decision involving the police and the merchants. Her findings show that the cameras went up to combat the “hang-around-downtown” youth.

Quite frankly, that enrages me. How dare you merchants plot against the very children of your friends and colleagues! Shame on you for inviting Big Brother to watch everyone’s every move, just for the sake of a buck.

When I learned of her study, which formed the basis of her report published in UNCA’s Journal for Undergraduate Research, I was stunned. I haven’t been downtown since. I hope more people will start questioning this issue, because I thought Asheville was an open-minded place to live, a town where I could express myself artistically, and an environment that was liberal. Yeah, right! Thanks a lot for the cameras, merchants. If you stop and compare the camera issue to the graffiti issue (heck, go ahead and throw in the skatepark issue, too) who looks worse? The kids (who may get a little out of hand or burn a joint from time to time) or the merchant-police (in their plot to invade our constitutional right of privacy)?

On to the skatepark: Team Payne is a multi-million-dollar skatepark-construction firm. Payne has been designing and building skate parks for 20 years, and his experience spans the globe. Tim has built more than 400 half pipes and 175 skate parks in more than 19 countries worldwide. Tim works extensively with professional skaters to build the most challenging and state-of-the-art facilities, while still keeping in touch with the needs of beginning skaters. Tim works closely with cities, architects and private individuals, from the planning-and-design process through the actual construction.

I hope we can all appreciate the fact that the arrival of the skatepark will bring the city a significant increase in commerce — that is, if the city’s merchants welcome it with open arms. An open mind toward skaters would benefit our town, too. If you didn’t already know, there are many anti-drug/anti-alcohol pro-skaters out there, spreading the good word about good health. Skaters, as well as graffiti artists, have carried a bad rap for way too long. Skateboarding culture is much deeper than what the average merchant may see.

The skatepark will not only attract many people to the sport, but also many parents from cities all over the Southeast, who will come with their kids for the weekend. They’ll want to check out the stores downtown, and if the attitude toward the whole basis of their weekend venture is negative, they’ll be scared away. Now, if merchants like Smith keep going on about how horrible the skatepark is, then our town may be affected significantly. The skatepark is coming … soon. We as a community can either choose to embrace this venture (which will give us more national attention than another antique shop), or we can chastise it.

But let me tell you something, Asheville merchants: If you keep up with the negative stereotyping, the finger-pointing, and the ill-hearted and close-minded perceptions, you’ll lose out on a wonderful opportunity to enrich our city both economically and socially — especially for the adults of tomorrow. Don’t you remember being young yourself, at some point? Or have you always been an adult, angry at things you don’t understand and selling out to Big Brother just to make a buck?

[Bianchi is a senior at UNCA, majoring in sociology. He also writes for Strength Magazine, a national publication that covers skateboarding and hip-hop culture.]

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