This graffiti must be permitted

Wheatpaste piece by Pandemic and Ronnie Miller in April 2011

Last winter, Jay Porter of the Linkery was issued a citation by the City of San Diego’s neighborhood code compliance office for maintaining graffiti on a public wall on their property.

The only problem–the offending piece was a commissioned, large-scale work.  Not illegal. In fact, Jay Porter commissions artists to contribute work on the east facing wall of The Linkery all the time.  The piece pictured here was commissioned in March of 2011.

The situation illustrates San Diego’s chronic ambivalence toward public art, and its discomfort with graffiti art in particular.

Kinsee Morlan, former Arts Editor for San Diego CityBeat, investigated the situation and published her analysis in a CityBeat Arts Blog post in December:

Jay Porter, owner of The Linkery, took to Twitter to refute the ticket, initially blaming the San Diego Police Department for the citation but eventually following up with a correction. He put in a call to Neighborhood Code Compliance and says the issuing officer was nice about the possible mistake and “agreed to send someone to look at the piece in person,” as she had initially just seen a photograph of the artwork.

Tony Khalil, a senior civil engineer at Neighborhood Code Compliance, said he didn’t know anything about the citation, but he did say that it was up to his office to determine whether the art is graffiti or not…..

And so, what Morlan learned is that, presumably in the absence of a clear definition of graffiti, code enforcement in the City of San Diego is based on the artwork’s appearance.

Khalil says the mural on The Linkery “looks like an art piece that’s been commissioned” and therefore meets code compliance standards. He says as long as a piece “appears to be commissioned or allowed” by the property owners, it does not fit the city’s definition of graffiti.

Well then, let’s hope everybody likes your art.  Because if someone in the neighborhood imagines that it wasn’t commissioned, then there you go.  They will call in a complaint to Code Compliance and you’re going down for graffiti vandalism.

What’s really at stake here is the potential loss of the capacity of art in our public spaces to engage people in meaningful debate about who we are and what we want our community to be.

When the value of a work of art is determined by the lack of public outcry against it, then seriously, is this art, or simply a pretty decoration?

Art historian and critic Rosalyn Deutche argues that its a problem for art and for the public when the absence of conflict masquerades as democracy.

Advocates of public art often seek to resolve confrontations between artists and other users of space through procedures that are routinely described as “democratic.” Examples of such procedures are “community involvement” in the selection of works of art or the so-called “integration” of artworks with the spaces they occupy. Leaving aside the question of the necessity for, and desirability of, these procedures, note that to take for granted that they are democratic is to presume that the task of democracy is to settle, rather than sustain, conflict.

Indeed, when “community involvement” is limited to either censoring or simply tolerating works of art in public spaces, then I think something essential is lost.  What’s fun and exciting in public art is that it always seems to prompt conversations amongst people passing by. Sit down in front of a work of art in a public space sometime, and you’ll see. Complete strangers will stop and tell you stories about their past. People will assume roles–some will offer to protect the piece from potential vandals, others will offer accolades or expressions of shock or dismay, registering their response to the art and it’s placement on their wall.  Yet others will engage in complex acts of interpretation, trying to figure out what the art means to them, to the artist, to others.

And this is how art can build a community. Not everybody has the same taste. Not everybody likes aerosol can art. In fact, there’s a lot of art that people don’t like.

Wouldn’t it be more fun if we could talk about why?











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  1. Jill, we are running into this issue here on Adams, the business association now wants to create a new committe in order to oversee any mural projects, basicly they want to police and regulate what goes up. When it was mentioned that someone should talk to me, Jason at Visual Art Supply, the got silent and stated that Visual Art Supply was the reason the committe was to be formed, too much “outsider art” so now they want to act as the experts and force feed the public some safe watered down variety of mural art.

    • Jill Holslin says:

      Yes, and their term “outsider art” is indicative of a deeper problem in our definition of “the public”–too many neighborhood association types want to use art to simply pat themselves on the back and confirm some extremely limited, but dominant idea of who they are and who/what the neighborhood is all about. How many of those people have wandered around the dozens of apartment complexes between 37th Street and Meade and Bancroft and talked to the residents there? How many of them know anyone who isn’t either a homeowner or a business owner? And how many of them have done any research on the role of murals in revitalizing neighborhoods and bringing in more business?

  2. Jessicadelrio says:

    This artistic graffiti by all means, but the tagging on the walls and the bridges that is just an attempt to mark a territory, defensively should not be allowed, it should be punished.

    • Jill Holslin says:

      Indeed, IF it were that clear what the motivations of these taggers might be, then official police intervention might be warranted. The problem is, we don’t know the motivations of most kids who write tags or place stickers on telephone booths. Urban graffiti–like sagging pants and oversize athletic jerseys–is marketed on t-shirts, lunch boxes and backpacks in American shopping malls now. It has become an important youth art form, a legitimate style of urban expression, and is clearly no longer limited to gangs.

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