The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


January 17, 2014

Marta Churchwell: Post-tornado murals redefine what graffiti means

JOPLIN, Mo. — Within days of the tornado that rocked Joplin in 2011, inspirational murals began popping up around town. They featured iconic images of patriotism and offered messages of hope, love and strength. No one argued that they were uplifting.

But think about how they were created. They sprang up, virtually overnight, painted by artists armed with cans of spray paint and with deft skills that allowed them to work quickly then be gone in the dark of night. They were impermanent works, destroyed by building demolition or faded by weather and time.

It sounds like graffiti to me. By definitions of those who specialize in graffiti, it is: Buildings were the canvases. The artwork employed the old school graffiti font of balloon lettering, the type so frequently seen on railroad cars. The work that remains at 20th and Main streets includes cartoonish characters as well as tags, the term graffiti artists use for their signatures or the images they use as their signatures.

If it meets the definitions of graffiti, why did we allow the work to remain? By many people's definition, graffiti is vandalism, worthy of legal action or being cleaned away from their structural canvases.

That was never considered with these murals. It begs us to rethink our attitudes toward graffiti.

"I believe that street art and graffiti are two separate styles of the same genre and when put together can make some of the most awe-inspiring artwork the world has ever seen," says Vincent Alejandro, one of the graffiti artists responsible for the painting at 20th and Main streets.

Says Linda Teeter, a Carl Junction photographer who has exhibited work focusing on the graffiti culture: "Some graffiti is vandalism. There's no doubt. But it's an art form, and some of it is beautiful."

Alejandro, who now resides in New York, got his start in graffiti and has transitioned into street art. He explained that graffiti tends to be painted quickly, sacrificing aesthetics for speed. It's about tagging one's signature and "bombing," getting up a tag in as many places as possible to show skillfulness, thereby gaining respect within the graffiti community.

"It's more for the actual writer (graffiti artist) himself or other writers," rather than the general public, he said. "Street art makes more of a statement for the general public to see, admire, think about or even talk about. The subject matter is more on a political note or a story-telling vibe. It's meant to be something to make you think.

"When I created the Hope Wall at 20th and Main, my main goal was to convey to the community that the healing can begin by something as simple as words, such as hope, faith and love."  

The graffiti featured in Teeter's photography exhibits was located primarily in the inner city areas of Kansas City, Chicago and New Orleans. Word of her fascination with taking photographs of graffiti spread in those areas, gaining her opportunities to meet the artists responsible for the work in her photographs. They gave her insight into the graffiti culture.

While some inner city graffiti painters are gang members, the majority are not young thugs hell bent on defacing property, she said. A considerable number, like Alejandro, are middle-aged and hold art degrees, some from respected art institutes. For many, graffiti is just one art interest, done in the veil of night, while carving out a living by day as graphic artists, gallery owners or in other art-related professions, she said.

Their common characteristic is nonconformity. They lash out by choosing canvases such as buildings, overpasses or railroad cars that represent mainstream society. Because of the threat of legal consequences, they work at night, and they remain anonymous, their tags being pseudonyms that protect their identity.

Frequently, their tags are what the graffiti culture terms "wildstyle," involving interlocking letters that are intentionally difficult for non-graffiti artists to translate. This style is prominent on graffiti-ridden box cars at a railroad salvage yard at 10th and Main streets in Joplin.

Alejandro won't deny that some artists do tag out of rebellion. But he is quick to note that contemporary graffiti originated when there were few inner city art programs. Graffiti filled the need for young people to express themselves and to share it publicly. Because graffiti is a tool for expressing rebellion or communicating viewpoints, we should pay attention to it, Teeter said.

"It's a culture, and it's their conversation and it's worth listening to," she said.

She notes that many of the buildings that become canvases are abandoned and decaying. The artists who mar the walls consider that they are improving dilapidating structures, even if it is done illicitly. That is certainly a consideration when contemplating whether it is worthy of prosecution for vandalism.

"You decide whether it's vandalism or art," Teeter said. "But consider all sides of the issue."

Contact Marta Churchwell with column ideas and comments at joplinglobe

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