I was right on the Brookline-Brighton border a couple of days ago, when a young man, doing some outdoor home improvement, saw me painting over a tag on a “Welcome to Brookline” sign. He was intrigued. This was the conversation we had:
Him: “Do you… remove graffiti?”
Him: “I’m a graffiti artist and I used to do lots of tags.”
(I’m thinking, ‘Am I really the guy you want to be telling this to?’)
Him: “Yeah, but now I have a job I really need and if I get caught doing a tag, I’ll lose my job, so I don’t do it anymore.”
Me: (smiling) “Jobs are kind of like that.”
Him: “You know, they should have a designated place - like a big wall - that you can do graffiti art legally.”
Me: “Absolutely. It is certainly can be an art form, and there should be places people can do it without vandalizing the homes in my neighborhood.”
Him: “People shouldn’t tag people’s homes. That’s wrong.”
Me: “And in Brookline, almost none of the graffiti we have is art. Look at what I just painted over - is that art?”
Me: “Maybe along some of the train tracks there is some stuff that might be art. But 99% of what we have is just garbage - people just writing their handle everywhere.”
Him: “That’s just stupid. But there is some good stuff in Boston. You know… graffiti keeps kids out of trouble.”
Me: (resisting the urge to say, ‘I don’t think Mr. Dinius thinks graffiti kept his son out of trouble.’) “It’s great when kids get into any kind of art - even graffiti art. But how do you keep the crime out of it? Too much of the graffiti world is into drugs, related to gangs, and lots of vandalism. I don’t know if people can promote it because of all that.”
Him: “There should be some way.”
Can graffiti become a purely legit art form? I don’t think so. Sure, there are places like Detroit where there are so many abandoned buildings and neighborhoods that lots of graffiti can happen there without upsetting property owners. But I think the sneaking around, the thrill of doing something wrong, the element of attacking authority…. it’s all too important to the culture of graffiti. I just don’t think the art form can be separated from the crime. For communities, graffiti is such a reliable indicator that a neighborhood is going bad, such an invitation to other kinds of crime (criminals see it and think, ‘Nobody is watching here at night. Good!’), I can’t see communities promoting it.
Too bad. As the exhibit at the Boston ICA shows* - it’s possible for it to be real art. And the mural those guys did in Somerville was really impressive. (Link here) But the key thing is that they got permission first.
* But make no mistake - if even those guys did a mural on public property without permission in Brookline, I would paint over it immediately and help the police arrest them.