Long Beach: We Should Have Open, Free Graffiti Space

The famous Long Beach "Graffiti Angel" Photo:##http://www.flickr.com/photos/spoonyg1/7054556211/sizes/l/in/photostream/##Spoonyg/Flickr##

We should create open, free, accessible graffiti space.

There, I said it. And I know it holds with it a plethora of cons–the term graffiti itself, the worry of what will be painted, the influx of those people that neighborhoods supposedly “don’t want”–and I, albeit begrudgingly, get this.

I know my choice of terminology–“graffiti” over “street art”–is, in and of itself, problematic for many. Street art has become this strangely accepted form of art–think Basquiat’s jump from graffiti art to museums, MOCA’s Art in the Streets or Paris’s Fondation Center’s Born in the Streets or the Bay Area’s Special Delivery–that has some sort of museum and social authority attached to it thanks to the (well-deserved) works of Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Space Invader, Barry McGee, Long Beach’s own Skullphone and Help Desk, and others. And though many can argue against it, my definition of graffiti in regard to being placed against street art is that graffiti is of-the-moment and limited to what can be done on the spot; it lacks a message being brought to the space more than a space igniting the message.

And with this, I ask you to at least hear me out: Long Beach is the perfect canvas.

I received an e-mail from one of my undergrad alumni informing me that one of my favorite neuroscientists, Jonah Lehrer, had given the keynote speech at the Theatre Communications Group (TCG) annual conference a couple years back.  Given that my writing specialty is in dramatic writing, I was thrilled and, to be honest, somewhat confused that a neurologist was giving the keynote at a theatre conference.

While the TCG wasn’t legally allowed to provide a transcript or film the keynote, so many people had tweeted direct quotes that for those who were unable to attend–like my poor post-graduate self–were able to get the general gist of his fascinating speech, entitled “This is Your Brain on Theatre.”

The basic thrust of Mr. Lehrer’s speech was that theatre and the arts as a whole remain essential–even in the age of the iPhone. Pointing out that children who can delay their gratification also garner higher test scores was attributed, at least for Lehrer, to the ability of the child to focus their attention and intention more precisely–something that is utterly important since, with the bombardment of information coming at us, it is far more important to be able to parse information that it is to remember it all.

Art, in this particular sense, builds the muscle of focus–especially odd, complex, or difficult art. Take theatre, for example: the layers of plot, theme, language force the viewer to use various parts of cognitive ability to process the information at hand. In a single swift moment, we are moved through multiple levels of comprehension. When applied to all forms of art, this means we move between local comprehension–who is this artist? what did he/she/they use to make this piece?–and global understanding–what is the piece trying to convey? what are the underlying values of such a piece?–that ultimately helps us empathize, to understand the endeavors and struggles of others.

To those who question the function of compassion, I defiantly encourage you to look at empathy’s scope outside of charity. Empathy–through someone else’s story, however that story is conveyed–is not only what art is, but is a general driver in the solving of problems. And that is because sometimes the hardest part of creativity is not finding the solution, but the problem–which in turn, creates innovation.

Lehrer made an interesting observation: Why does the city of San Francisco have the most patents generated than any other city in the United States?  According to his logic, San Francisco found a way to mitigate its isolation. Cities that invite direct mingling of diverse persons in parks or on sidewalks create what he called intimate inefficiencies–and these random encounters yield more innovations.

In other words, mutual incomprehension leads to innovative solutions.

The unplanned nature of the urban ballet is like an email to a stranger: we need the spontaneous sidewalk encounters. The act of explaining what you think to someone from a different background causes creativity. A diverse team is more successful because we are forced to explain ourselves, and by doing so, reach a deeper understanding.

Long Beach has access to the keypoints Dr. Lehrer describes in an innovative metropolis like San Francisco: we are a diverse team, with active ethnic and cultural communities. Yet, Long Beach is always tagged as “up-and-coming” without upping or coming, particularly when it comes to the arts. Those pushing for arts are often ignored or outcast. It is like we have this massive amount of potential to create these random encounters and interactions and yet we store up the potential in seal-locked warehouses.

So I ask a very difficult, albeit essential question: how can we increase these “intimate inefficiencies” while maintaining the aura that makes Long Beach so distinctly Long Beach?

It is here where I propose open graffiti spaces.

Graffiti art has long been a contest between politicians and those who partake in the actual act of graffiti.  However, it has also long surpassed its moniker of being associated with gangs and violent, territorial proclamations.

The aforementioned artists have helped catapult graffiti into a legitimate form of artistic expression, respected amongst established museums, curators, and art gallery owners. It is not just about tagging your respected area code or proclaiming ownership; it is about critical reflections, political turmoil, social injustice. One but has to visit the 5 Pointz warehouse in Queens, New York or along Pont Saint-Louis in Paris to see this.

Of course, the most fascinating part about graffiti art is that, artistically speaking, it finally bridges a very large gap between classes.  Art in museums has long been viewed as pretentious and inaccessible to people of lower incomes or those without access to education.  Graffiti art, for them, has been a way to express themselves without having to mitigate their expression due to social norms.

And cities are beginning to shift their perception of graffiti and providing local artists free, legal spaces in which they can openly create.  The 5 Pointz warehouse in Queens, New York is an incredible reflection of the artistic possibilities of providing such a space.  When I visited Copenhagen, I was enthralled by Sydhaven, an open, legal space that continually changes and shifts as graffiti artists create beautiful and oftentimes massively complex pieces. The Venice Graffiti Pit in Venice Beach has long been admired for its ever-shifting façade. Burghausen, Germany has a 150-meter long wall dedicated to open graffiti. The abandoned Rote Fabrik silk mill in Zurich is now an officially sanctioned space for graffiti art. In Prague, the Tesnov tagging area was even chosen because of the excellent lighting it provided artists.

These examples provide concrete evidence that graffiti can no longer be singularly considered vandalism. And I offer a very daunting but innovative proposal: why don’t we not only create open graffiti spaces in Long Beach, but actually become the cultivator of street art? No city has taken on this task (shocking to me considering that graffiti art is clearly the fastest growing form of artistic expression).

I propose this for two reasons: it will provide youths, typically unable to access traditional art spaces or materials, with a place where they can express themselves and, more importantly, be seen. They have visibility, perhaps even a chance to create a career out of their art. Secondly, and just as importantly, I go back to Dr. Lehrer’s emphasis on a city creating random encounters.  If Long Beach creates these free tagging spaces, can one imagine the endless random encounters it will generate? When will a citizen of Belmont Shore ever have the chance to approach a tagger from North Long Beach and ask him or her or them why they’re creating what they are creating?  How will that conversation shift perceptions?  And, as I previously mentioned, how much empathy will such a transaction foster?

Not only as an artist but more importantly as a Long Beacher, I understand the insane and almost impossible amount of complications and problems that such a proposition holds. But just as equally, I believe taking this step will not only act as a catalyst for creativity and innovation within Long Beach, it will truly mark Long Beach as an innovative city willing to stand out atypically from its fellow urban spaces.

  • Urban Reason

    The ballona creek bike path immediately comes to mind. Take that 6 miles of otherwise uninspired concrete wall where the only graffiti is the occasional overnight tag and encourage street artists to use it as a six mile canvas. Could be something quite magical.

  • Mike

    Somebody has to chime in with the “grumpy old man” point of view, so here goes. Graffiti can singularly be considered vandalism. It is vandalism.

    Most graffiti, as an artistic expression, explores two universal themes: fame and domination. It is almost always (1) here is my name over and over in indecipherable lettering, or (2) this is my territory and you should fear me. The street art that isn’t about those two themes form a miniscule percentage of the graffiti space.

    The argument that youths, unable to access traditional art spaces, need to use walls and buildings as canvas is not valid. This isn’t the 1970s where there is no free medium to express your message. The internet renders that argument moot.

    I can “imagine the endless random encounters” it will generate. Unpleasant ones. All of my random encounters with street artists usually ended up with them threatening me with physical harm.

  • Anonymous

    The domination craving of vandalism is not satisfied by safe spaces for vandals. This will solve no problem. I feel there is a similar thing going on with loud bass. It is not for music appreciation but to dominate the neighborhood. “Just try and tell me to turn it off!”

    You do a disservice to your argument by calling it the grumpy old man point of view. I am 29 and I think it is common sense.

  • Anonymous

    Whatever magical result occurs will be destroyed by other vandals. I see so many murals that look quite good, probably commissioned properly and painted with consent, that are then tagged by local gangbangers or wannabes.

  • Anonymous

    Graffitti is vandalism and should be punished as such, unless done on private property with previous authorization of owners.

    Public property should be free of graffiti because private property should be used to display some niche art that offends the majority of law abiding population anyway.

  • Urban Reason

    “Whatever magical result occurs will be destroyed by other vandals”

    To say this is neglecting to recognize one of the most beautiful things about street art. It’s constantly changing. It’s not regulated by some public bureaucracy saying “okay, it’s time to commission a new design for slot 372A”. It just happens, spontaneously, sporadically, and driven by the artists. All the city has to do is “allow” it. If amazing street art gets tagged by vandals it doesn’t really matter, because it’s not intended to last a century. It’s just a fleeting visual representation of an idea from a moment in time.

    Regarding the rights of property owners, if I understand you correctly I don’t think we are going to see eye-to-eye on that. Public infrastructure like the Ballona Creek doesn’t exist to serve “property owners” as such, it exists for the good and edification of the CITIZENS (and visitors). Frankly I don’t care if they’d rather see plain concrete walls in public spaces. The owners of private property in this city already have far too much power in the public domain, and if they had their way there would be no expo line, no purple line to Santa Monica – they’ve already prevented bus lanes, bike lanes, access to public beaches, and many things that would, could or should exist for the good of the citizens.

  • Anonymous

    You would never support putting it up for a vote because you know the voters would oppose your attempts to normalize abusive and ugly graffiti.

    Also, Los Angeles voted to fund the Expo Line, Purple Line, bus lanes, bike lanes, etc., so politicians had a clear mandate to pursue those projects, including the taking of property in the public interest.

  • Urban Reason

    Come on Spokker, you’re a prolific commenter on these blogs. You’re better than putting words in other people’s mouths and making negative, sweeping generalizations about a form of art based on your own personal preference.

  • Anonymous

    This is the first time I’ve posted in a long time and I believe street art should be commissioned. If it’s public land, it should go through the normal democratic process, such as the city council or board of supervisors.

  • Urban Reason

    Though I don’t agree, I understand where you’re coming from and respect your opinion on the matter.

    I think you’re wrong about a blank public canvas normalizing the type of graffiti that is intimidating and abusive. What it seems this notion neglects to take into consideration is that there is currently no place for people to do this legally and freely. The only way that it can currently happen is illegally.

    So if you create a blank public canvas, a playground if you will, for people who are more interested in making statements or just the pure enjoyment in the act of creating something with a can of spray-paint than intimidating or marking territory, not only may you decrease the amount of illegal graffiti, up the standards and the quality of the “artwork” (when it is actually an attempt at artwork), but you may just end up with some memorable and exciting public spaces.

    But like I said, I do understand where you’re coming from and I’m not challenging your right to express that opinion.

  • Erik Deckard

    Long Beach is so behind when it comes to these ideas. Don’t get me wrong, LB cultivates amazing people but they tend to leave and give there wealth of creativity to other places that are open to seeing a bigger, perhaps skewed picture. I was born and raised there but it was clear to me that my city was full of grumpy, bored, uncreative, simple, traditionalist who have this small town mentality. LB will continue to be just a great city in the shadows until it starts to “act as a catalyst for creativity and innovation” (B.Addison) and luckily it’s slowly happening. Here’s a great example of what can be..

    Wynwood : A city neighborhood turned into a canvas, Thanks Miami.
    http://thewynwoodwalls.com/ , http://wynwoodmiami.com

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