If Linda Teeter follows through on one of her visions for the new downtown art district, we may be rethinking our attitudes toward graffiti and recognizing it as an art form.
Teeter, a local arts mover and shaker and owner of downtown’s Urban Art Gallery, is leading the effort to establish an art district for downtown marketing purposes, as approved by the city council.
Among her visions for the district is signage to recognize an area between Fifth and Sixth streets that’s become known alternately as graffiti alley or artistic alley. Located behind the businesses that line that block of Joplin Avenue, the alley is awash with brightly colored, creatively executed graffiti.
It’s a mixture of both graffiti and fine art styles in images that are ever changing. For now, spray-painted roses and cartoon-style characters find places along with a finely painted phoenix in mosaic styling. Artwork created with bottle caps is surrounded by all types of word messages and RIP memorials in balloon lettering, an old school graffiti font. At one end of the alley hangs wind chimes and at the other end hangs stylish hubcaps. Running the length of it in bold lettering that plays with the eyes is the declaration: Sucks being poor.
In some cities, the alley would be recognized and celebrated as an alternative public art area. Whether that attitude takes hold locally will depend on whether we can find the line between graffiti as vandalism and graffiti as street art that’s part of a contemporary art movement.
It will take recognition of the various forms of graffiti to define that line.
As a member of The Tank public art group, which has created various public murals, primarily geometric in design, I’ve had many a discussion about graffiti as vandalism and graffiti as street art. It boils down to respect for property owners and not claiming a piece of property without permission.
What is unacceptable is graffiti that is nothing more than tagging — just spraying a street moniker or a signature image — or bombing by getting the tag up in as many places as possible with no permission from property owners. That’s about artist vanity and rebellion. It’s not about art, and it’s little more than vandalism.
A piece of public art The Tank created at Spiva Center for the Arts was struck by one of those taggers. When he was confronted by it, he was nothing but defiant and disrespectful. None of us should support these types of graffiti artists.
But there are other types of graffiti — well-executed word graffiti that addresses social or political issues and street art that is complex, beautiful art — that should be viewed as an art form.
I came to understand this through Vincent Alejandro, a former Joplin street artist now living in New York. He was one of the creators of the Hope graffiti mural that sprang up overnight at 20th and Main following the 2011 tornado.
“Street art makes more of a statement for the general public to see, admire, think about or even talk about,” he told me. “The subject matter is more on a political note or a story-telling vibe. It’s meant to be something to make you think.”
Graffiti alley is a mixture of that. It’s about creative talent that has been taken to the streets, using buildings as canvases, but with permission from the business owners. Most of the businesses — bars, a coffee shop, a pizzeria — that line graffiti alley gave their okay to the artwork; others may not have formally given it the nod, but they haven’t raised a ruckus over it.
Obviously, graffiti alley is captivating as there are frequently people strolling down it, stopping to take it all in. Sometimes, it’s used as a backdrop for selfies and for portraits and group shots. Once, I used it as a backdrop for a photo shoot to promote a Kansas City exhibit of three local artists.
If we were to recognize the work in graffiti alley as alternative form of public art, we could use it to educate the public about the difference between inane graffiti and street art. Perhaps we could discourage the taggers who are doing little more than vandalizing private property.
Some cities are deterring senseless graffiti while improving blighted areas by allowing street art in designated spaces. They recognize that it will take place anyway, so they concede to these artists by giving them areas for socio-political expression and their own brand of artwork. It can offer exposure for artistic talent and promote creative expression, even if it’s nonconformist in style.
Perhaps it’s time for Joplin to consider more areas for this, in addition to graffiti alley.
I consider that there’s a case to be argued in recognizing street art as a contemporary art movement and giving it respect for its cultural context. In that way, I have no problem with Teeter recognizing graffiti alley in her marketing of the downtown art district. When it’s hidden in an alley or in another designated area, it doesn’t compromise community aesthetics as much as it recognizes it as an alternative form of public art.