The Dark Arts: Graffiti walks the line between petty vandalism and complex art form

Four years ago in Duluth, the Minnesota Department of Transportation took measures to clear out and fence off a quarter-mile section underneath Interstate 35 known as the “Graffiti Graveyard” // Photo by Dan Branovan

Minneapolis isn’t the only city in the state tamping down on illegal graffiti. Four years ago in Duluth, the Minnesota Department of Transportation took measures to clear out and fence off a quarter-mile section underneath Interstate 35 called Graffiti Graveyard, which was an oasis for graffiti writers, artists, explorers, kids, druggies—all walks of life. The decision, according to officials, was due to structural issues of the underpass and out of concern for public safety. “There was a lot of criminal activity, drug dealings, violence,” Sergeant Ken Zwak with the Duluth police department says. But complex questions very much still circulate. Was Graffiti Graveyard only a message board for other criminal activity? Or can graffiti serve a larger purpose?

To those within the underground, albeit, illegal world of graffiti, it isn’t a havoc of reckless criminals. It’s a culture of writers and artists with a code of ethics, mutual respect, and distinctive style and skill.

“Yes, some younger kids don’t give a shit,” Peyton says. “They want the highest shock value because graffiti is about fame and getting recognized. But think: It’s an exploration of the environment and self. It takes a high degree of skill: It’s dark, you’re working with aerosols, ladders, scaffolding, and you’re nervous. I am not set out to create a criminal act. I am out to create and to create art—create something that may inspire, motivate, or excite someone. […] I do not graffiti to ‘vandalize’ property, as in causing destruction of it, or to ruin someone’s personal space. I make art in interesting and unexpected places.”

Sure, not all graf-writers are equally good at their trade, just like not all “conventional” artists will live up to the caliber of Michelangelo, Monet, or Kahlo. But graffiti deserves to be a part of the artistic conversation, argues former graffiti artist Greg Scott Ganeles. “In our society, graffiti gets covered up because it can be thought of as eye sores,” he says. “But it can also change someone’s day—it can be artistic, it can be cool.”

“It is art,” says Peyton. “Creative lettering, beautiful, bold, large, powerful. People perhaps don’t realize how difficult this is. It is a craft. It is an art form—to study, to master, to understand.” And to get more people to understand, Peyton is dedicated to increase awareness of graffiti as a teachable art form through his business, SPRAYFINGER. Through his program, he brings graffiti to an educational format by addressing and discussing culture, community, expression, and the process of graffiti writing as an artistic value to all sorts of people, from fellow artists, to parents, and even kids.

In 2016, 8,059 graffiti cases were reported in Minneapolis // Photo by Dan Branovan

“My programs are not an abatement program,” Russell clarifies. “I understand the craft has its roots in vandalism, and I keep that in perspective. However, I teach ‘The Art of Creative Lettering’ not as a deterrent to vandalism, but as an art form. I want people to educate themselves to have a tolerance to see things differently. It’s a beautiful conversation. You see people stop and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh.’ You see the conversation—a communication that happens on a visceral level and in an external plane. Tag, buff, tag, buff. People—the anonymous artist and the viewer, any viewer—are talking.”

At the end of the day, everyone has his or her own opinions on graffiti and street art. No matter if you think graffiti as crass or creative, the piece isn’t finished when the spray can is set down. The public reaction supplies a meaning, value, and conversation. In other words, art comes alive in the arguments you have about it.

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