The Autonomous Necessity of Graffiti

This article was originally published by the Portland Street Art Alliance.

It’s been a depressing month for street art. Snagging national media attention, the buffing of legendary graffiti destination 5 Pointz in Queens, New York shocked artists and art critics alike. Even Portland bloggers noted the injustice that had been committed by developers Jerry Wolkoff and his son as part of their scheme to level the site and throw up yet more nauseating condos and luxury boutiques.

The white paint was barely dry when an outraged community wasted no time spraying the newly blank building. The Illuminator arrived that night to project messages of condemnation upon the desecrated walls. 5 Pointz spokesperson Marie Flageul conveyed the collective grief, “It was the largest aerosol art center in the world. You can never replace it.” After the ruling by a federal judge who opted to not save the iconic sight from the wrecking ball, tagging at 5 Pointz is now illegal – a hard fact driven home by the NYPD making numerous arrests of artists writing out their anger this week.

1471097_536146413136672_2030201625_nCourtesy: The Illuminator

tumblr_mwjnsygyuL1s53aypo5_r1_1280Courtesy: NYU News

Local street artists and skaters are also mourning the recent demolition of the Brooklyn Skate Spot in SE Portland. After a fight to save the tiny pocket park from the construction of a new light rail line, friends and supporters watched as one of Portland’s few places to legally grind and paint to their heart’s content was busted to pieces.

Despite valiant efforts to save the sight, the sentiment seems to be that without broader support, a fight to save a place of significance to the street art and skating community didn’t stand much of a chance. There are already plans in the works for a new skate spot in nearby Powell Park. Still though, Brooklyn, like 5 Pointz, was incredibly exceptional, and simply cannot be replaced in a way that will bring people together as before. Portland and Queens have both lost something unique. Forever.

994980_448327258611602_1263283131_nCourtesy: Curb Cut Magazine

It bears asking, what about these places made them so beloved? They were obviously spaces that brought people together for similar activities. They were the product of the blood, sweat, and tears of regular people, of individuals, of friends and families. They were owned by the public, to be shared by absolutely anyone. They were the commons, and they were essential.

The feeling that people have a say in their built physical environment is of vital importance to city dwellers. Marking terrirotry, building a thing, painting a wall – these are acts that enrich ourselves. We need to feel a connection to the world around us, and this attachment to the commons – when it’s robbed from us – the harm cuts far deeper than just seeing a piece of artwork disappear. The true damage is in knowing a thing we owned collectively can be taken away by those with money and power.

Screen shot 2013-08-09 at 12.00.04 AMCourtesy: The Oakland Compound

The sense of identity that graffiti provides must also not be underestimated. Where there is street art, murals, graffiti, even simple tags – these are the markings of a community practicing healthy communication. It is a tradition older than the written word, older than spoken language itself. We need to write on walls. It is part of who we are as people. Without graffiti, we lose a part of what it means to be human.

Places without unsanctioned street art are depressing places indeed. Here we find imposed strict social norms preventing creativity and spontaneity from flourishing in the public realm. These are the very types of fundamental activities that make cities thrive. Without them, the city functions more as a prison than a complex community. In a nation of growing obedience to extralegal market forces and impoverishing austerity budgets, this kind of conformity and banality is the killer of culture. All the more reason to use street art as a tool for civil disobedience. It is one thing the state cannot truly restrain.

Ultimately, graffiti’s true power lies in its ability to take control away from the homeowners associations, the city halls, the developers, the capitalists – and return it where where power rightly belongs, in the hands of the people. The mainstream media narrative will likely always be hostile to street art of a rebellious nature, and rightly so. These are our commons, our spaces. In private property-fetishizing America, real estate tycoons may technically ‘own’ the building, but we’re the ones who have to look at them. The external world of urban space must endure as the public commons. Graffiti remains a vital tool to assert our right to this social space.

5 Pointz and Brooklyn Skate Spot may be gone, but their legacies – as well as their necessity – won’t soon be forgotten.


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Thumbnail image courtesy: BiSiKLETA