By Alex Wukman
Dallas area street/graffiti artist Evero was recently sentenced to six months in jail and given a job offer from Dallas’ “graffiti czar,”attorney John Barr. Barr is known throughout the DFW area as something of an anti-graffiti crusader. In an era when walls painted by celebrity London street artist Banksy can sell for around $400,000 and cities across the globe are working to protect street art by creating legal graffiti spaces, sentencing a street artist to jail seemed a little old fashioned. It also seems strange that, in a time of severe budget shortages, cities keep spending money on graffiti abatement. So we decided to talk with Houston’s own “graffiti czar,” City Council Member Sue Lovell. Like anyone in public office Lovell, who currently holds the Council’s At Large Position 2, has faced criticism over the years.However, despite her involvement in increasing the amount of money spent on anti-graffiti initiatives Lovell has, in the past, enjoyed a good working relationship with many members of Houston’s street art community. She has even been overheard saying that she owns artwork by some of Houston’s practitioners of wheat paste and that she enjoys “the painted animals peeking around corners.”
When asked about the amount of money the City spends on graffiti abatement Lovell stated that since the City signed a contract in January with the Greater East End District she is unsure about the specific amount of money spent on graffiti abatement. She did say that it was “at least $1 million” per year. However, the amount the city spends on graffiti abatement could be considerably more than $1 million; as Lovell herself said at the April premiere of Stick ‘Em UP, filmmaker Alex Luster’s documentary on Houston’s wheat paste scene, when she told the audience that graffiti removal “costs $2 million a year.” The city’s decision to continually rely solely on the tactic of abatement has drawn criticism from members of the graffiti community.
In January Carolyn Casey, Aerosol Warfare’s education program director, said that members of the Houston art scene were invited to attend a City Council meeting to discuss graffiti. Casey stated that she had previously approached the city about a “re-direction urban art program.” “We thought they were being open to an idea of ours, but they really just called us all there to tell us to tell our friends to stop doing it. They weren’t open to new ideas, and said that as long as they’re spending money on abatement, they’re not going to spend any money on programs,” said Casey.
Even though Casey was allegedly told by the city to drop her plans for an educational urban program her ideas may not have completely fallen on deaf ears. In an interview Lovell said that the City of Houston is “still moving forward” in it’s approach to graffiti and that “if we weren’t spending money on removal” the city might have been able to bring to reality a proposal for legal graffiti walls Lovell first discussed in 2007.
Lovell went on to say that the city “hasn’t given up on graffiti walls,” but in the current budget climate they are “a low priority.” ”When people are losing their jobs and we are shutting libraries and public pools legal graffiti walls are at the bottom of the list,” said Lovell.”Even if we could figure out how to do it, there isn’t any money for it.” When asked about preserving unsanctioned pieces that are already on public buildings Lovell responded by asking “how would you decide what to keep?” “I don’t think anyone in the city is qualified to determine what to keep and what to paint over.” Lovell did propose another strategy for creating a publicly sanctioned space for street art in Houston.
“Signature intersections,” said Lovell. She explained that there was a possibility of using grant money to decorate specific, notable intersections, such as Montrose and Westheimer, with urban art. Lovell went on to state that she was “going to run the idea up the flagpole.” For some Houston’s well-known street artists having a legal space, whether a wall or a crosswalk, is unnecessary and in some cases takes something away from the act. Coolidge, the city wide king of cute animals, said that “every graffiti artist has to understand that there are consequences that go along with this activity. If it wasnt illegal, it would lose a lot of its flavor.” He went on say that, in his mind, graffiti artists who get arrested, like Evero or prolific Southwest Side tagger Shadow, “can’t fault the cops and the D.A. for doing their jobs…it’s part of the game.”
Coolidge continued by saying that the art world hype surrounding the rediscovery of street art, something that seems to happen every 10 years, won’t change the nature of graffiti.”Graffiti will remain illegal, and that won’t change because the big money world of art collecting decided that a Banksy piece is worth $500,000. It’s a symbiotic relationship,” stated Coolidge. For seminal Houston wheat paste artist Dual the illegal nature of graffiti is a large part of the draw. “If graffiti wasn’t illegal, then I probably wouldn’t care too much to take the risk and put up my art for the masses,” stated Dual. Dual also stated that graffiti abatement measures may not create the desired effect in graffiti artists. “To some artist like myself, seeing a work of mine torn down or defaced, just amps me up to go bigger and better.”
The impact graffiti has on a community,whether positive or negative, can be debated; Gonzo247 restated the old axiom that “Graffiti creates jobs and you should thank me” when asked about the impact it has on a community. Dual, on the other hand, sees graffiti as a necessary part of a city’s cultural ecosystem. “A city with no grafitti is a city with no sub-culture. And I don’t wanna find myself living in a place like that,” stated Dual. Part of the problem with graffiti abatement comes from the way it’s applied. In June Cody Ledvina of The Joana gallery stated that Greater East End District workers “have a quota” and that “they take a picture of something and paint over it.” Ledvina stated that, in his experience, the graffiti abatement teams have, in the past, painted over authorized pieces on private property; the most famous of which was “Mr. Balls,” the cat from the famous Mary’s mural.