Graffiti Talk Challenge | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Graffiti Talk Challenge

Politicians -- even those trying for the youth vote -- risk anti-youth tag for anti-tagging stance



"I'm well aware of the outlaw element of graffiti we're dealing with," says Khari Mosley, campaign director for mayoral and District 8 City Council candidate Bill Peduto. "Peduto has been a big supporter of finding public space to present work of an urban aesthetic, and he'll continue to work for that. But at the same time we can't act like it's cool to put stuff up on people's property."



Mosley is in a sensitive position. He's one of Peduto's top community liaisons, especially with the young, urban crowd -- arguably Peduto's strongest base. But he's also co-chair of the Pennsylvania Hip Hop Political Convention and a rap artist. Hip hop has historically been defined by four core elements: rap, turntablism, breakdancing and graffiti.


There is a distinction between graffiti and vandalism, says Mosley, and he's had that discussion with his candidate. Peduto has been instrumental in the creation of civic-minded public wall-art movements in Pittsburgh, Mosley points out, through his work with the Sprout Fund and the Penn Avenue Arts Initiative.


But Peduto has also made graffiti- and litter-combat a cornerstone of his campaign, proposing in March a "safe and clean neighborhoods" plan that uses funds from the Urban Redevelopment Authority to clean up vandalism. He's referred to graffiti as a "pathological" act that can lead to more serious offenses.


In 1971, New York City Mayor John Lindsay was among the first big-city elected officials to draw attention to graffiti as a "mental health problem," when subway cars were being covered in massive spray-art displays.


 "Our policy with graffiti is [to] find the victim," says Peduto. "It's not a victimless crime or a freedom-of-speech issue. There are widows and senior citizens who are scared as hell because they think it's gang activity."


"Any time a politician gets involved it's always suspect, because graffiti becomes a scapegoat for social ills," says Ayanah Moor, an art professor at Carnegie Mellon University who teaches contemporary and hip-hop art. "So rather than talk about who is the public and what is public space, it's easy to say that graffiti is the reason why there are problems in Pittsburgh -- like, there are no jobs in Pittsburgh because of graffiti."


Moor points to corporations that plaster entire subway cars and buses with their ads. It is a strategy directly lifted from graffiti artists, a move that is tolerated even though the public has no say in how these images confront them.


"Rather than having a conversation about who made that decision," says Moor, recalling Peduto's labeling of some taggers as sick, "we talk about graffiti being a pathological problem."


Nick Kyriazi, president of North Side's East Allegheny Community Council, says there's no distinction between graffiti and vandalism and doesn't approve of it anywhere, not even the miles-long display of larger-than-life sized portraits (burners) along the East Busway path that makes that bus ride more pleasant for some.


"It is painful to look at," says Kyriazi. "I try to look away, but if you look inside the bus, the markings there are just as painful. It hurts every time I look at graffiti. I can not suffer anymore."

To eradicate graffiti, a "freelance brigade" of deputized citizens should be formed to patrol and levy fines on those caught red-handed, he says. Although jailing them would go against Kyriazi's libertarian principles, he adds, they should "suffer" through fines of up to $500. 


In other cities across America where graffiti is deemed a problem, community activists have spoken out against policies they felt criminalized urban youth. But states have enacted similar penalties to Kyriazi's proposal. California's Proposition 21 in 2000, for instance, made any act of vandalism resulting in more than $400 worth of damage a felony, with the possibility of three years' jail time.


But graffiti complaints from the public may actually be on the decline. According to Pennsylvania Uniform Crime Reporting System statistics, fewer vandalism crimes were reported in 2004 (24,056, of which 236 were unfounded complaints) than any other year since 2000 (26,374, 323 unfounded). At least a third of those arrested for vandalism in Pittsburgh since 2000 have been juveniles, including 234 kids under age 10.


In McKees Rocks, Mayor John Muhr has issued ordinances and assembled task forces to see that no wall-art goes up without his review. Just a few weeks ago, Muhr ordered city workers to paint over a mural by Homewood residents Kyle Holbrook and Maurice Solomon on the side of a newly opened nail shop. The colorful design, completed with the aid of local children, featured pictures of McKees Rocks kids, including 4-year-old DeAvery Lyons, who was hit by a car and killed in April.


It was Holbrook's second mural covered up in McKees Rocks. In each case, he had the permission of the business owner and was paid to do them. The first mural, painted in January, was commissioned by a county agency to send an anti-smoking message. It adorned the wall of a printing company and was then blocked by trees placed by owners of a neighboring funeral home who felt the "loud colors" offended their customers. (See news briefs, Jan. 27, "McKees Rocks Can't See Mural for Trees.") Muhr said publicly he didn't approve of this mural, either.


While Muhr is up for re-election, wall-art won't be an issue, since he's running unopposed.


Some of Peduto's supporters have their own graffiti solution. Justin Strong, owner of the arts community magnet Shadow Lounge in East Liberty (and a Black Professionals for Peduto member) says he's grown more conservative in his thinking since becoming a business proprietor.


"You cross the line when you hit our bathrooms and we end up paying for it," he says of graffiti writers. "But if you give them space in the city then we can do this without prosecuting and they don't have to do it illegally. You have to give them some ownership."


Concludes Mosley, of the Peduto campaign, about his candidate's anti-graffiti stand: "[Peduto] sees it as an economic development tool to bring people back to the city ... it's not a wholesale indictment of the art form. We can't advocate for the illegal posting of tags on people's walls, but we do need to find safe, legal ways for people to put up their work because it can be inspirational."

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