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We are a society beset by Capital letters and heterogeneous abstractions. Graffiti, Vandalism, Youth, Women, Science. As if giving something an overarching collective noun implies a set of shared characteristics that allows us to implement a uniform “blanket” response to it with reasonable expectations of success.

Take, by way of example, the recent Mail and Guardian article on the interactions between the City of Cape Town and Graffiti artists. Yes, artists, people. You only realise how much skill it takes when you see the results of folks with more enthusiasm than spray-can skill. (I’m talking to you, PYA sprayers of the Wits Tunnel)

Here is the article in nifty slide show form: http://mg.co.za/multimedia/2013-08-23-city-of-cape-town-vs-skating-and-graffiti

Short version, (unless I’ve seriously got the wrong end of the stick) is that graffiti artists must follow a complex procedure to apply for permits from the city before attempting a piece, or face hefty fines or jail time.

This based off the view, endorsed by SCIENCE (another capitalised abstraction that is pretty meaningless unless you know WHOSE science, WHAT methods were used, and the context in which they were used, and HOW seriously the rest of the scientific community takes it) that graffiti and other vandalism is the first sign of neighbourhood on the slippery slide to dysfunction. Accordingly it, along with other signs of Social Disorder, must be energetically combated.

See, the first problem with this, is applying collective characteristics to what is essentially a MEDIUM of expression. If you think that graffiti is a collective whole when it comes to content, intention and effect then you haven’t really looked at where you are living. Here’s a very brief, very amateur survey of selected graffiti types found in the Newtown area to illustrate what I mean : http://astronautsofurbanspace.wordpress.com/2013/06/03/clues-and-cues-graffiti-in-newtown/

If that proves a case of TLDR, think about it this way: saying all graffiti talks about the same things because it’s often painted on walls using aerosol cans is like saying all Manga is basically porn, because some porn is drawn in a manga style. Or that all documents typed in Times New Roman are high-school maths textbooks, because all high-school maths textbooks use that font.

Some Graffiti is beautiful, uplifting, political, place-making, humanising and hopeful.

Iphone dump pre botswana 183

Graffiti on a concrete dustbin off Mary Fitzgerald Square, Newtown

Iphone dump pre botswana 228

Graffiti on the side of the stairway to Museum Africa, Newtown Johannesburg

Iphone dump pre botswana 079

“Together we can do so much” Graffiti on the stairs of Museum Africa, Newtown Johannesburg

But, unfortunately a lot of it is vulgar language, and incomprehensible tags and graphics that are offensive to some aesthetics.

So, what do we do? In order to accept some graffiti, do we have to accept all of it, like that implication of Free Speech where people have to be allowed to promulgate even stupid and offensive opinions?

I don’t think so. I don’t think that any parent should be forced to explain what certain four-letter words mean to a curious under-six because someone felt the need to paint them on walls.  (Nor do I think the same parent should have to explain the meaning of the Lollipop Lounge or Teazers billboards, and those are protected by the law!)

So, the City of Cape Town has a point, some graffiti is problematic for society and should not be in the public space. The questions now are: who decides that and when?

I will be quite frank, I don’t think that any city government is diverse enough, open-minded enough, or has enough free time to broadly represent what different citizens perceive as detrimental to social space. One person’s statement of hope is another’s threat. This is my first problem with the permit system, as the nature of the intended artwork is also a factor in determining whether or not an application is granted.

Secondly, particularly in this country, we always have the right to respond to things: I don’t want this on my wall; I don’t think that image is appropriate for opposite a primary school. (Whether the response of painting over the four-letter words and threats and rage is an appropriate one is another question)

But what we do not have is the right to set up institutions that limit what people are allowed to say based on anything other than the constitutional limits to Freedom of Expression, namely Hate speech, war propaganda and incitement to violence, or the misrepresentations of reality covered by libel and slander laws.

An institution that does not have to disclose reasons for granting or denying applications, is an institution that is not accountable to the public (or even the artist) and could well be the kind of institution mentioned in the above paragraph, that we, given our history do not have the right to.

I’m not saying the board that deals with applications is such an institution; I’m saying that under the current by-laws, they are not under any obligation to let us know one way or another.

Please don’t misunderstand; these by-laws are not choking the ability of graffiti to speak into the controversial issues of society. The most militant and unpopular statements are can usually be classified under vandalism anyway and are done by crews savvy enough not to get caught. (One of my favourite pieces was clearly vandalism: wonky green capitals across the newly erected two metre wall of an expensive housing complex in my suburb stating “Something there is that does not love a wall.”)

I’m asking what kind of foundation we are building our city by-laws on, and what we want them to be built on. I’m asking if we aren’t confusing our comfort zone with the public good. I’m asking about what structural inclusivity and dialogue really mean.

And I don’t have the answers, nor would I want you to believe me if I claimed I did.

But here’s a bunch of links, source data, laws: http://www.vansa.co.za/Projects/western-cape/news/bylaw-graffiti-20101.pdf

http://mg.co.za/article/2013-08-23-ikapa-boards-up-the-long-street-to-freedom

http://www.info.gov.za/documents/constitution/1996/96cons2.htm#16

http://aandalawblog.blogspot.com/2010/10/good-bad-and-four-man-control-unit.html

http://www.city-journal.org/2009/nytom_ny-crime-decline.html

http://harvardpress.typepad.com/hup_publicity/2013/03/chicago-broken-windows-bernard-harcourt.html

http://www.innovationexcellence.com/blog/2013/01/26/broken-windows-innovation/

http://www.uk.sagepub.com/cross/files/Chapter9-Article3.pdf

http://urbanflaneruguidebook.blogspot.com/2012/10/urban-graffiti-spontaneous-artistic.html

http://www.isocarp.net/data/case_studies/724.pdf

http://www.graffitistudies.info/culturalaesthetics.htm

Let’s start looking.

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