Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Say Goodbye -- The Great Graffiti Controversy

Life is so very interesting.  Several weeks ago, I wrote about using architectural detail as a theme for my photography.  I’d planned this post as a sort of Part II -- to ramble a bit about the beauty and diversity of Street Art, Urban Art, Graffiti and Mural Art.  I’ll still do that, but I’ll be heading in a little different direction, because of something that occurred yesterday...  

For years and years, the controversy over graffiti was “those damn kids” with their spray paint; defacing property, contributing to Urban blight and the general “moral corruption” of society.  Writing that made me chuckle out loud, but I can recall my parents and their friends saying things exactly like that.

If you read my blog, you’ll know I was raised up nice and healthy in the Midwest --  Kansas to be exact -- with room to roam and the freedom to do it.  But I’ve been a city dweller now for a majority of my years and life in the city has shown me clearly that the definition of beauty is not the narrow, confined standard proscribed by society -- rather it is huge, unlimited -- sky high.  It’s whatever we want it to be and it is constantly evolving.

When I travel with my camera, I nearly always choose a city where I can unpack my bags and roam on foot finding “my” coffee shop, “my” bookstore and “my” local bar to hang in as I begin exploring.  Traveling on foot allows me to see who’s out on the streets with me, what they’re doing, what clothes they’re styling, how they maintain their homes, their trash, where they play, their music scene - it also lets me feel virtuously healthy burning a multitude of calories as I walk.  Wandering around on foot also allows me to see so many of the details that disappear in a blur breezing along in a taxicab.  Cherubs, lions, the face of a native american unexpectedly carved over a doorway and weird, wild, wonderful graffiti of all kinds.

Graffiti as an art form has evolved from the repeated signature scrawl of a name or “tag” and morphed into full fledged mural art by talented artists and biting political commentary like that of the now famous - or infamous - Banksy.  The determination of graffiti artists hasn’t changed over the years, but their work has matured, becoming much more detailed and complex - very possibly because they don’t have to paint it on the run any longer.  Graffiti - and street art have come to be appreciated as “real art” and its “ownership’ is being fought over on an international level including in auction houses. 

Because it can disappear or be completely defaced in a moment, I’m drawn to document graffiti and mural art with my camera.  While San Francisco, unlike the majority of U.S. cities, seems to embrace the work of its graffiti artists, here in Philly, it’s still painted over by city workers almost as soon as it’s painted...no matter how lovely. 

When you take an interest in photography, you are drawn toward what the photographer has seen in any given moment in time.  That moment - just like a snowflake - will never be recreated or captured identically again -- no matter what the subject.  The light will never be exactly the same, another photographer will “see” the same view very differently, a month of sunshine will fade the pigment, each camera will capture the moment just “this much” differently - making it unique.

This is the place where I was going to talk about using graffiti and mural photography as a unique way to bring contemporary art and the feel of the city into your home or office,  because I was feeling rather pleased with my little unofficial, one-woman Street Art - Graffiti Art - Mural Art Preservation Program.  Instead, today I am preparing to pull some of my favorite images from my shop.  

A San Francisco mural artist contacted me yesterday and asked me to remove my photographs of his work.  It’s disappointing for a number of reasons -- chief among them?  I was excited to share this art. The flip side though, whether legal, illegal or debatable is that I would be leaving a fellow artist feeling like his work had been stolen and that seems in poor taste...at the very least.

Conversation went back and forth a few times, I asked advice from several different sources to consolidate my thinking.  Closing in pretty quickly on the undeniable fact that I would obviously remove my photos featuring his work as requested.  Something had me unsettled and a little on edge though.  It took me awhile, but I finally worked it out in the wee hours.  The artist is convinced I willingly meant to do him harm.  There seems to be no way to convince him otherwise -- he is certain I am evil.  My offer to contribute proceeds to a Youth Mural Program or Mural Preservation Group of his choice were viewed as disingenuous, stated with harsh words.

I’m that person who happily holds doors open for young and old alike, shovels half the block when it snows because so many of my neighbors are older or in ill health and “blesses” total strangers when they sneeze in public.  Am I Mother Theresa?  Definitely not.  Can I be thoughtless?  Oh yeah.  Being seen as the devil incarnate definitely bugged me though and I spent far too much time trying to explain myself and my intentions to someone who will never hear me.  The poor man is just trying to protect his interests after all and that must be one tough job considering his work is outside in an alley -- in an area known for graffiti.  Good grief - head shaking - laughing fondly at self in a Christopher Robin sort of way.

Street art has come a long way from its public nuisance, in your face, spray paint scrawled roots.  It is now fine art -- exactly the point I was trying to make when I started writing this.  Protected, copyrighted, guarded carefully as if safe within museum walls.  Ironic, isn’t it?  This may be the last time you see several of these images...unless you plan a trip to San Francisco’s Mission District to see one of the most concentrated collections of amazing graffiti art murals...in person.  Just don’t take your camera!

E. England

The fabulous top mural was obviously created by the very cool Zio Zeigler, the stunning middle mural is by the wildly talented team of Alynn-Mag. More information may be found on these artists in my Etsy Shop.  Come visit.


  1. That is so crazy! I mean, it is public property, so I don't see why you wouldn't be able to post a photo of it. It's not like you are creating greeting cards from the art and reproducing it. This guy is way out of line. Ugh. I'm sorry you had to hear those harsh words. :(

  2. Thanks for your support Heather. Your thinking...similar to mine....seems to be the minority opinion. I think I was dealing with one very frustrated artist who feels strongly about what he understands his rights to be. I get it. So far, two other artists have generously and quite kindly allowed me to continue to use their work.

  3. I wonder what the rule is on sculpture in the public view.....this would seem to be a similar situation. But, as you point out, the sad thing is he has become so jaded that he can only see harm where appreciation was intended.

  4. Elizabeth what an interesting and well written post! I enjoyed reading it...Trish