Graffiti: Urban art or vandalism?
For this special assignment, WDRB's Emily Mieure explored both sides of the topic, talking with a new anti-graffiti group and with one of the area's most infamous graffiti writers.
Wednesday, July 23rd 2014, 3:14 pm EDT
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- So many reports coming in, officials can't keep up, which raises the question: is the law soft when it comes to Louisville graffiti?
The newly formed Graffiti Abatement Coalition of Louisville wants to know why graffiti writers are getting caught but not prosecuted. Police say they just don't have the resources, and if they did, they can't spend time and money focusing on misdemeanors.
The illegal art form is as old as time, and even police admit: graffiti isn't going away anytime soon.
"I'm not going to dedicate a detective to solely investigate graffiti and tagging," said Maj. Mark Fox, LMPD's 5th Division Commander.
In response to an open records request for graffiti tagging and arrests being made, WDRB was told: "It has been determined we have no records responsive to your requests. LMPD does not maintain a list of graffiti or tagging arrests."
This attitude towards graffiti is what sparked community advocate Josh White to form the Graffiti Abatement Coalition of Louisville. White has been meeting with community leaders and city officials to tackle graffiti, one tagger at a time.
"I think that there's more that can be done," said White. "That's why the coalition is here. We're going to see if we can get those resources where they belong."
He believes there's a disconnect in Louisville when it comes to reporting graffiti. Either people are doing it wrong or the reports aren't landing in the right hands.
Maj. Fox says he sees plenty of graffiti in the Highlands, but to arrest a graffiti writer, an officer must catch him in the act. "We can have all the associative evidence and corroborating evidence in the world on a misdemeanor, but the law says we have to see it," he explained.
Major Fox told us that often doesn't happen. LMPD has bigger cases to deal with. "I just don't have the man power to dedicate to one job in particular," he said.
Josh White disagrees. "It's a huge disappointment," he said,"if [Maj. Fox] is going to say there's this problem that's plaguing our district, our city. And if he had all the resources in the world, I mean if I got him 20 extra police officers, either he's not thinking big enough, but if he had the extra resources for this purpose, why not use them?"
"It's a misdemeanor, and if I got an additional two or three detectives, I have case loads I could justify working," Maj. Fox said.
So Josh White is coming up with solutions. He's taking Boy Scouts out in the community to paint over graffiti, also known as "buffing," and he's launching a new program called "Clean Slate," where graffiti writers are hired to paint murals throughout Louisville neighborhoods.
"We want Louisville to become a mecca of street art," White said. "All the arts are going to be able to get behind this because we want Louisville to be a pinnacle of society."
The program, however, comes with a catch. White says the graffiti writers involved with Clean Slate must promise to stop tagging illegally.
Is that realistic?
To find out, we sought out one of Louisville's most notorious graffiti writers, who goes by his pseudonym: Brrr.
"People shouldn't be afraid of graffiti because, you know, it's just people trying to express themselves just like everyone else wants to," Brrr explained.
Brrr is known for his popular bug-eyed character which you've probably seen on city walls and dumpsters. You can find it on pretty much any piece of crumbling concrete in Louisville. "To pass time, I'd go out and walk on the railroad tracks and everywhere I'd walk, I'd see graffiti so it became a natural link to start trying it," he said.
After we promised to keep their identities secret, Brrr along with local graffiti writer "Game", took us to an unnamed location to give us an inside look of the sub culture that is Louisville graffiti.
"Graffiti is the largest art movement in history, so it seems just completely utopian-esque to think that's just going to stop," Game explained. "I feel that I should have the same right to express myself as Coca-Cola does on a billboard."
Both graffiti writers are open to the idea of Clean Slate. "I think if you asked any graffiti artist in Louisville if they wanted to paint a mural, they would say, '[absolutely]!'," Game said. "Just give me some paint and I'll be there. Just tell me when."
"I like [White's] intentions as far as promoting artwork and promoting murals in Louisville," Brrr added.
But both agree that while painting murals will give them the peer recognition they desire as artists, it doesn't allow them the same freedom of expression that graffiti does.
"That's how graffiti first boomed from the subway to the streets," Game said. "They said, 'well, we don't want graffiti on the subway anymore' and the graffiti writers said, 'fine, take the subway, we'll take the streets.' There's no stopping it. You might as well embrace it."
But it's important to remember that graffiti
Brrr and Game admit nothing really makes tagging someone else's property "okay," but there are unwritten rules they abide by. "People try and avoid personal property best they can," Brrr explained. "Vehicles, homes, anything that's going to be outright offensive. For one, because it's just rude and because it puts the craft at risk."
Game agrees. "You know, [opponents of graffiti] are like, 'how can you go write on someone's property?' It's like well, did the property crumble after I painted it? Did anyone get hurt when I painted it? Did they choke on my paint fumes? No. If you're not hurting anyone in the process, I'd say you're doing a good job at whatever it is you're doing," he said.
The other issue associated with graffiti isn't legality, it's gang affiliation.
How many tags in Louisville are associated with gangs? Police believe it's less than 3%.
During a press conference on June 4th, Maj. Fox said, "Some of [the tags] are identifiable to gangs, but most of it's not. Most of it is just kids with spray paint cans."
Brrr says while graffiti in other cities might be affiliated with gangs, that's not the case in Louisville. "That is like no percentage," he said. "These people who are doing it, they'll have crews but a crew is not necessarily a gang. If a crew's a gang, a fraternity is a gang. We don't want to be associated with gangs. We're not. We're all generally smart, calm, collected people who like artwork."
In fact, the brrr tag was born in the classroom. He explained that the tag came when "we were talking about calligraphy and the power of a single line."
The man behind Brrr also creates legal art. "I love studio art," he said. "I enjoy having a studio. Some of my best work I feel like I do in the studio."
Graffiti writers told us no one is going to win the war on graffiti, because if each new tag is a battle, the fight will likely go on forever.
You can get in touch with the Graffiti Abatement Coalition of Louisville here.
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