Tom Clyde: Graffiti is vandalism — or is it art?
Graffiti is complicated. If identical paintings are applied to the wall of a building by the owner of the building and by a local stoner, it is either OK (well, maybe a sign code issue) or criminal mischief. It’s the same paint with the same drawing, but if applied by the building owner, it is art (or at least authorized), and if applied by somebody else, it is vandalism.
But sometimes we decide that the vandalism is art. The Banksy painted on the wall of Java Cow during Sundance years ago has become a local treasure. The rat painted on the door of the Egyptian has been put in storage to preserve it. It’s textbook vandalism, spray painting something on a building or wall you don’t own, without the permission of the owner. But somehow, because the vandal was world famous, and the drawings were quite engaging, they become community icons.
Then, when some unfamous, lowlife vandal spray painted over the Banksys, vandalizing the prior vandalism, it became a big deal. The county prosecutor actually tracked the guy down in California and hauled him back to Utah for a misdemeanor prosecution. That just never happens. I don’t remember if he was sent to jail for vandalizing somebody else’s vandalism or got off with a fine. But the powers that be wanted this guy’s head on a platter. Nobody even hinted that Banksy should be hauled off to jail. We were just beside ourselves because the famous graffiti artist had graced our community with his work.
Meanwhile, if they ever figure out who keeps tagging the pump house at the head of Daly Avenue, somebody’s going to Gitmo.
Clearly I’m missing something. There is nothing in the criminal statute that creates an exemption for quality art when applied to somebody else’s property without permission. If you re-create the Sistine Chapel on the wall of the Eccles Center, it is legally the same thing as covering it with gang symbols. Unless it’s a Banksy. Then it’s entirely different.
What brought the whole Banksy incident back was the announcement that the joint city/county public arts committee has hired Bisco Smith to come to our fair city and put on a two-day seminar on graffiti. He’s famous. Look him up on Wikipedia. Local teenagers are encouraged to sign up and learn the finer points of this art form from a guy who, at least among those in the know, is a famous graffiti artist. The culmination of this seminar will be painting the inside of the tunnel that crosses under S.R. 224 between Redstone and the ski jump. I have no idea what we are spending on this.
I haven’t ridden my bike through that tunnel in a very long time. The last time I did, it was bare concrete walls, and was a pretty dark and dreary place. I have to assume that somebody has painted the walls by now — something unapproved and not the work of a famous artist. So Bisco Smith and the local teens will get after it, applying the Brooklyn aesthetic to our mountain town. This is being done with the permission of the county. The county is paying for the artwork through restaurant sales tax money. (My guess is that UDOT owns the tunnel, and, lacking artistic training, they will send a graffiti removal crew out to paint over the work, despite the official endorsement of the project.)
But more important than decorating the inside of a tunnel, local young people will have been trained in the proper technique of tunnel painting. If the program is successful, they will be inspired to go forth and spray paint the hell out of every exposed surface in the community. In tasteful and artistic ways learned at the hand of the Brooklyn master.
What could possibly go wrong?
I’ve got no objection to spending public funds on public art. In a community with the kind of spare cash sloshing around that we have here, spending a couple of percent on each public construction project on something artistic is perfectly reasonable. There are some interesting murals in other pedestrian tunnels around town. There are some sculptural pieces that catch the eye. I’ve never understood the thing that looks like a truckload of sprinkler pipe rolled over by the dog park, but I’m not a certified artist. At least we’re not arguing about taking down statues of Robert E. Lee.
But I do have a hard time with the idea that the arts committee is using tax dollars to encourage and inspire local kids to start plastering graffiti all over town. I don’t really care if your kid is an aspiring Banksy or Bisco. We don’t need them vandalizing the water tanks, pump houses, and buildings in town, and then spending more money to clean up the mess.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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The governments of the Wasatch Back have to reckon with its future as a contiguous metro area, Tom Clyde writes.