Graffiti Parks May Be the Answer

Introducing a segment on graffiti last week, Lester Holt of NBC Nightly News rhetorically asked: what is the difference between "one man's vandalism and another man's artistic expression?"

Lee Cowen of NBC, who reported the story, talked about "the vast canvas (of) the inner-city" and the problems cities are having given the increase in graffiti.

Cowen was picking up many of the complaints from a New York Times story about LA that "tags (another name for graffiti) have popped up on guardrails along the dirt trails near Griffith Park across town. There are, almost daily, fresh splashes on walls in the San Fernando Valley, on downtown Los Angeles buildings and on billboards along the highways."

The graffiti problem isn't unique to LA. Most cities see this as a growing epidemic. But "artistic expression" is real, and in what is fast becoming a "creative and innovation economy" could be a good thing for cities across America.

Clearly something positive is happening and cities need to find a way to stop the "vandalism" and encourage the "artistic expression." Graffiti Parks might be one answer.

Graffiti, or what is called "street art," is coming out of the parks and off the streets to be displayed in galleries and museums. Such work is selling for thousands of dollars. And museums -- especially in the bigger cities -- are showcasing works of street artists who, in a way, have become the rock stars of the art world.

Earlier this year for example, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego (MCASD) had an exhibition called "Viva la Revolución: A Dialogue with the Urban Landscape," which hosted twenty artists from ten countries who were linked together by how their work addresses urban issues. And the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art concluded an exhibition (August 8) called "Art in the Streets" that traced "the development of graffiti and street art from the 1970s to the global movement it has become today." The exhibition featured "paintings, mixed media sculptures, and interactive installations by 50 of the most dynamic artists in America."

Meanwhile in San Diego, one of the most remarkable graffiti park experiments has been underway since 1999.

When the residents of the area said they wanted to see more enriching public art but less ugly stuff on their buildings, something called the WriterzBlok was born. It has been supported since inception by The Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation.

The philosophy of the Writerzblok is simple: "Call a kid a tagger and he's a criminal. Help him become an artist and everything changes."

"Art, like beauty," they explain, "is in the eye of the beholder. What's prized by one person might be despised by another. What's priceless to some means little to others. With street art this is even more the case. What some call vandalism, others see as bold, beautiful, and expressive. What some paint over, others want to frame."

The Jacobs Center is working with other foundations -- including the small but prestigious Legler Benbough Foundation, a major supporter of Balboa Park and art and culture institutions in the region -- "on a comprehensive development plan to transform 45 unused, untended, and underutilized acres into The Village at Market Creek, a vibrant community center and cultural destination in the heart of San Diego."

The Jacobs Center says "arts and culture have been galvanizing forces for bringing residents from diverse neighborhoods together," Sandra Candler-Wafer, Community Building Program Manager (who is also serving as interim executive director while a search is underway) would characterize the park as "a positive approach to graffiti prevention," curbing vandalism in the area as well as becoming a training ground for young people.

The park is run by only two full-time paid staff and hundreds of volunteers coordinating services and activities, and has touched the lives of thousands of young people, many of whom have gone on to successful careers as artists.

WriterzBlok holds training workshops in graphic arts and mural design, where budding graphic art participants master the basics of computer art and translating hand sketches into computer images and muralism students learn new techniques in aerosol art and design. The staff also teaches muralism classes at local high schools when they are not managing the park.

Of considerable interest is a program "to provide (the region) with monthly graffiti-removal options, weekly check-in visits, and removal of unwanted tagging in a timely fashion. WriterzBlok can also help prevent illegal tagging by replacing blank walls with beautiful murals." Michael Sloan, who teaches social entrepreneurship at San Diego State University, has his students talking with businesses and other organizations in the area to test reaction to the program. This may be an idea ripe for communities everywhere.