L.A. continually struggles to find its footing when it comes to public art. While graffiti proves a nuisance to some city officials, plenty of citizens keep fighting the good fight to preserve the art of graffiti. Murals define so many parts of the city, even as artists seem to struggle to find space to create.
The South Park Business Improvement District recently created a public art project in collaboration with Do Art Foundation and the Metro Charter Elementary School. The kids got to paint on the wall in order to deter graffiti.
As the BID’s website explains, it took “$10,000 to design, build and install the project, approximately half of the amount of what proactive developers spend each year on graffiti removal.”
The solution came about after so many struggles to keep graffiti taggers at bay:
“With 17 projects under construction, and over 30 more slated for development, construction fences have become an eyesore for the community,” South Park BID executive director Jessica Lall wrote in a recent email. “They are tagged consistently, and replacing the fence with a blank canvas just attracts more graffiti. After receiving a multitude of complaints, we worked with our public art strategist to develop a plan to solve the problem. If successful, not only would we replace tagged fences but get children engaged in problem solving, creating something that is beautiful for the community. Furthermore, it ultimately helps developers decrease their costs from having to consistently replace fences.”
Lall explained that the organization worked with contemporary folk artist Shrine On to complete the project. Shrine On’s aesthetic is pretty recognizable in the piece due to its bold colors and patterns.
“We were fortunate that the property owner was open to letting us trial the project on his site, and have witnessed tremendous results,” Lall wrote. “We figured if we could prove that it worked on his site, it would work anywhere in the district — encouraging more developers to follow suit.”
The project also seemed to have a positive impact on the kids, says Metro Charter School principal Kim Clerx.
“This project demonstrated to the students that they can have an impact on their community,” Clerx wrote. “Their art was effective in deterring people from graffiti-ing. This showed them that your voice, no matter how small, matters.”
Now, Clerx says, the kids are glad to see their own work on the walls, unmarred.
“The classes walked by the project a few times and were excited to see that it was not tagged,” Clerx wrote. “In addition, those that walk or drive by the space on their way to school noticed the art frequently.”
Ironically, the idea of guarding against “unsightly graffiti-covered construction fences” (as the website states) became a way for the kids to see the value of driving by their own artwork as displayed in a public space. While there’s a discrepancy between sanctioned public art and illegal graffiti, the lines have been blurred of late.
Unsanctioned public art continually proves its value, monetarily at auction and ideologically in terms of the lengths to which some communities go to protect it. By now, some of Banksy’s pieces are protected with Plexiglas — an odd gesture considering that he created the pieces illegally on the property.
Most of the time, conversations around public art end up being divided into two distinct camps by casual art observers: public art like Banksy, and graffiti art that doesn’t portray figures (tags, throw-ups, etc.) The latter often gets a bad rap and is far less likely to be preserved under Plexiglas.
But art institutions continue to give a certain credibility to graffiti pieces as well. The L.A. Liber Amicorum, aka the Getty Graffiti Black Book, features the work of more than 150 different artists (you can even browse through it online). It's telling that a venerable organization like the Getty Research Institute would attach its name to such a project.
So what would a street artist think of the mural? It depends who you ask. And the answer might be complicated.
Septerhed, a Los Angeles–based artist whose work graces walls everywhere from Melrose to South Central, appreciates that the kids are doing something that “inspired creativity” but has mixed feelings about the project as a whole.
“I'm not sure what even to say about it. I like that they are tagging on construction sites and that kids are making art,” Septerhed wrote. “They can afford to build a building but not keep an eye on their walls, and complain when someone expresses themselves on a temporary piece of wood? I think art doesn't need a reason sometimes.”