The term ‘graffiti’ is a bit like the term ‘drugs,’ in that many people negatively over-generalize the concept. The government has talked of its “war on drugs” for decades, all while sanctioning plenty of them, many of which are far more potentially damaging than some illicit ones. It’s all about the particular drug and how it’s used; and a particular drug’s legal status cannot tell you whether it’s being used for good or ill in a given situation.
Unlike drugs, graffiti is, by definition, illegal. But like drugs, the legal status of a particular graffito is not the determiner of its community benefit. That’s my hypothesis, anyway. And Long Beach is a perfect lab in which to examine it.
According to the City of Long Beach, in 2014 the City removed over 75,000 graffiti, which the City defines as “any unauthorized inscription, word, figure or design which is marked, etched, scratched, drawn or painted on any structural component of any building structure, or other facility regardless of the nature of the material of that structural component.” The City’s stated goal is “to keep all privately owned real property within the City free of graffiti [… which] is expressly declared to be a public nuisance.”
The long and the short of it is that quality doesn’t factor in. If Banksy honors Long Beach with one of his masterpieces, without intervention by the powers that be, a city staffer is likely to paint over it.
Of course, when it comes to art, quality is subjective. Whether Banksy is the genius that I take him to be or a hoodlum whose “unauthorized” works should be wiped off the face of the Earth—as many have been—is in the eye of the beholder. But that Long Beach has no mechanism in place to consider whether a piece of unauthorized public art is more beautification than blight might not be the most effective strategy for a city with pretensions to aesthetic greatness.
To be sure, the vast majority of graffiti not only fall short the Banksy standard, they are not even intended as art. These are tags, generally no more than a hastily scrawled signature of sorts placed to claim territory, the artistic equivalent to a bear’s urinating on a tree. In effect, tagging is generally intentional blight, a deservedly criminal activity that the City does well to wipe away.
But aside from sometimes throwing the baby out with the bathwater, there are instances when the City’s cure is worse than the disease. A prime example is in plain view on the Queensway Bridge, where huge, ugly blotches dominate the concrete barrier separating the northbound traffic lanes from the bike and pedestrian paths (see above).
Clearly, this white barrier has proven an appealing canvas for taggers. But while covering up the tags may be a commendable intent, in practice it has proven an aesthetic disaster. For starters, not only does the paint used for the cover-ups fail to match the original paint, it fails with a variety of mismatched colors.
As undesirable as tagging might be, if it cannot be prevented there—something for which the City is not to blame—from an aesthetic perspective it might have been better to leave the tags alone, especially since simply recreating the blank canvas that attracted taggers in the first place is likely to attract them again. Leaving the tags alone might be ugly at first, but as they accumulated over time, eventually the sheer gallimaufry of color and script might begin to yield something of artistic value, however unintended.
But perhaps a better means of addressing the problem would be to give local artists free rein to do what they will with the barrier. Incorporating the tags into new art or painting over them with images less tempting to taggers would be both cheaper for the City and more aesthetically pleasing than the status quo.
The City of Long Beach declined to comment about the bridge or related matters.
Another area in which the City seems to favor the dilapidated look over alternative strategies is the former Acres of Books building. Abandoned and neglected since 2008, the “historic façade” facing Long Beach Boulevard is little more than a cacophony of distressed plywood. Not surprisingly, over the years local artists have repeatedly taken it upon themselves to adorn the façade with posters, stickers, and the like, sometimes with book-related themes. But almost as soon as something goes up, City officials remove it, leaving the Acres of Books building a naked monument to disuse.
Unauthorized public art as public service is nothing new in the Southland. One of the most striking recent examples is Richard Ankrom’s freeway signage. After Ankrom moved to downtown Los Angeles nearly a decade ago, he noticed that Caltrans had neglected to install green overpass sign on the 110 Freeway East alerting drivers to the exit for Interstate 5 North. So Ankrom created and erected his own signage. For eight years the illegal sign went unnoticed—except by drivers looking to transition from the 110 to the 5.
Although problems of allowing a free-for-all of signage are obvious, Ankrom’s work is a clear case of society profiting from unauthorized activity. Guerrilla art cannot be fairly judged by its authorization, but on each work’s individual merits.
A Long Beach official who has straddled the line between guerilla art and authorization is Blair Cohn. As executive director of the Bixby Knolls Business Improvement Association (BKBIA), part of Cohn’s charge is to improve his community. And on multiple occasions Cohn has followed his instincts beyond the bounds of authorization. Two recent examples concern painting City property.
Surveying Bixby Knolls, Cohn noticed that a small and simple way to beautify the area was to repaint several dingy yellow fire hydrants. Using as a model several downtown fire hydrants made resplendent with reflective gold paint, Cohn contracted the same vendors to use the same paint for 13 hydrants in his neck of the woods.
But just before the job was completed, the Long Beach Water Department ordered Cohn to repaint the hydrants the original color at BKBIA expense—not because the gold paint in any way hindered the hydrants’ intended use, but simply because the work was unauthorized.
“I wrote to them and said, ‘Granted, we didn’t ask permission to do it, but we followed the model [of what was done downtown], making them gold to doll up the neighborhood and add one more fun element to Bixby Knolls,'” Cohn recounts. “We just did it, because I knew it was the right thing to do. I mean, if we used the same people and the same paint as [were used downtown], what’s the harm?”
The Water Department relented after Cohn got Long Beach Fire Department Chief Mike DuRee to tell the Water Department that the LBFD doesn’t care what color hydrants are, so long as they can be easily seen, especially at night. Because the new paint was reflective, the hydrants’ utility was actually improved by Cohn’s rogue action.
Not long afterwards, Cohn decided—again sans authorization—to beautify one of those ugly utility boxes that are weed-like presences throughout the city by giving Dave Van Patten, one of Long Beach’s most renowned and recognizable painters, free rein. As usual, Van Patten delivered in his singular style.
But just before the work was completed, Van Patten was told that the work would be painted over if it had not been previously approved by the City. However, after a flurry of phone calls to city officials, Cohn was assured that Van Patten’s unauthorized contribution to the community would be left alone. (In fact, it was never verified whether the person who made the initial comment regarding Van Patten’s work was a city employee.)
“It’s not like everyone at city hall is a villain here,” Cohn says. “They don’t want there to be chaos; they don’t want just anyone to go do whatever they want to do. But do you want swastikas painted on utility boxes, or do you want [an artist like] Dave Van Patten to paint something there?”
Pleased with Van Patten’s work, Cohn contracted him to beautify a second utility box. Did Cohn seek authorization for that one? “No,” he laughs. “I just picked the next one. That one had already been painted once before, and it got hit by a car, so all we’re doing is repainting it. We’re not removing the box, we’re not sealing it shut, we’ve not exposing wires or doing anything that could be hazardous. […] I [saw] a corner that could really use something, so I decided to have it painted.”
Cohn is just as enthusiastic about the appearance of guerilla art to which he has no connection appearing in Bixby Knolls, provided that it is genuine art-making. He recalls, for example, his excitement when graffiti artist Help Desk hit the BKBIA office and some area utility boxes, along with his disappointment when the City painted over it.
“I wasn’t going to touch it,” Cohn says. “It wasn’t offensive. It was clever and political and interesting. I loved it, […] Is it subjective? Of course. It’s absolutely true that art is subjective. But if it’s clever, if it’s artistic and interesting, awesome!”
Cohn says the Queensway Bridge is a perfect place to take on tagging with the help of guerilla artists.
“What I would do is go and find a few street artists, and let them elevate [the space], and let it grow from there,” he says. “Meet [the problem of tagging] head-on. And it’s not like that bridge is where the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau is shooting promo pictures for the City of Long Beach. It’s not like it’s the side of city hall. It’s not like it’s the Main Library or St. Mary’s Medical Center. My point is, it’s a nondescript area. [If you allow street art there,] you’re adding to the overall experience. Now you have not only the view of the water and the downtown skyline, but what you’ve done is create this art wall that has character, a little along the lines of 5Pointz in New York.”
Visitors in town for the Grand Prix who drive by the Acres of Books building or bike across the Queensway Bridge will behold areas of blight perpetuated by City of Long Beach. Beautifying urban space is more art than science, more about keeping the big picture in view than adhering to the status quo or the letter of the law.
Doubtless much graffiti abatement in Long Beach is as good as anyone could wish. Nonetheless, it appears that the City lacks a nuanced, comprehensive strategy for maximizing the aesthetic value of its urban landscape. For Long Beach to live up to its artistic pretensions, there is more work to be done on that front, including recognizing which strategies are failing to produce worthwhile results, and knowing when to leave well enough alone.Read More