Incarceration or Education?

root - Posted on 01 February 2000

Graffiti artist deconstructs the question of Art vs. Vandalism in connection to Prop 21.

by Tiny


For More Information About Black Folks Against Prop 21, how to get involved within the coalition as a volunteer or intern, please contact (510) 451-8813 or (510) 533-6629.

Art or Vandalism?

By Lisa Gray-Garcia a.k.a. "La Tiny"

It was 8:30 am on a Sunday morning, in Venice Beach, California. On this hot morning in June, the sun was out long enough to cook the asphalt into a black steaming stew emitting warm tar vapors like a simmering curry. On any other day it would have been too late to achieve the special quiet-ness an artist needs to create their work, but in Venice Beach, on a Sunday morning, only the pigeons and the waves lightly rippling against the shore, were awake. A vague medley of swishing palm fronds and the occasional runner blended into a cacophony of morning-nature that surrounded me as I caressed the canvas with my sweeping brush strokes. A soft restfulness, washed over my head far from the over- loud sounds of home, school, poverty and stress that filled my life on every other day... suddenly, the low rumbling of an approaching car... the spray can in my hand dropped to the ground registering a tinggggg- I looked up to see my work-, my art-work; on the dividing wall in front of me, I heard a loud ca-chunk of a thick door slam behind me... the heels of large boots hit the asphalt...."You're under arrest", the command sliced the air.

I was 14 years old at the time, that was 13 years ago - if the juvenile crime prevention act was in place - I would have been convicted as an adult, charged with a felony as opposed to a misdemeanor (under the act, $400.00 of damage is automatically a felony) and served "hard" time for this art "crime". Or in the case of young Lance Dolan, a twenty year old "tagger/artist, who is currently serving a16 month term for vandalism (read Graffiti), convicted under the three strikes law. The idea being, that if you remove young gang members from the "streets" by incarcerating them, you will be separating them from the influence of gangs. Unfortunately this idea fails because, the organization of gangs are at their most powerful in penal institutions, and just to survive, a mere gang "wanna-be"/ graffiti artist must become a full-fledged gang member just to survive while serving a jail sentence.

The question now urgently becomes what is art? What makes something "vandalism" instead of site specific public art? For example, the art of Rigo, known for his large single word messages on the walls of large buildings, Barry Mcgee, known for his art critic sanctioned "graffiti. "Tagging" instead of a "text-based art piece" such as the conceptual work of Barbara Kruger, known for her ad-like text-pieces or "style" like the fashion designers who used to "borrow" the look of the "streets" when creating $3,000 graffiti Style"" jeans.

Perhaps, the difference is resources and education, I and most of my very poor friends, never had the financial resources to go to art school, which is one of the channels to visual art recognition, validation and a chance to leap inside of the margins of "acceptability. My lack of educational access, luck or financial resources, insured that my art would remain on the "outside" and reliant on the art critiques of the Gang Task Force. (nationwide; Police forces have launched special task forces focused on gang activity) Consequently, through the concerted efforts of neighborhood clean-up campaigns and the police, my art and the art of Lance Dolan remains illegal, unsanctioned and undeserving of any title but; "vandalism".

The other important questions are, what or who determined that the lack of graffiti on a wall makes it "clean" or desirable? In other words, that the public lack of color, shape and form is the way things should be. In indigenous cultures throughout history as well as Greco-Roman times - the use of walls for messages images, the recording of history, and art, was the norm.

How have we created a society that is so enthralled with the cleanliness, blank-ness, or white-ness of everything? The homogenous corporate aesthetic has become our norm. Nationwide, communities converge for the "great neighborhood graffiti clean-up". On one such clean-up in Los Angeles last week, a graffiti cleaner attested to the fact," that as soon as he cleaned the wall someone else would "tag" it - but never fear he would be there to "fix" it - could it be that in an odd way, a new form of marginal collaboration is in progress, or is it just another example of American citizens working for the corporate vision, even if by default.

The solutions? Use some of the financial resources being directed at "Gang Task Forces" and the building of more prisons into well-developed art programs for inner city and poor rural school districts. And as a society approaching the millennium, we need to re-think our notion of "art" and canvas, or we will continue to incarcerate our most determined art-makers, who are attempting, like all artists, to be seen, heard and recognized.


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