Archive for the ‘laws against graffiti’ Tag

Tagging, part 2: how a signature can lead to prison

The previous entry was about some apects of social attitudes to tagging; however, it didn’t mention one of the most important aspect of how people think about tagging – that it constitutes a crime.

Precisely which crime depends upon the jurisdiction you are in. In Victoria, it could fall under the Summary Offences Act, or if you are caught carrying something like a marker pen or a spray can, you might be prosecuted under the new Graffiti Prevention Act (see my previous post in September 2008, called ‘Clamping down’). Some jurisdictions have graffiti-specific legislation, like Victoria’s new laws, while others prosecute tagging and other graffiti activities under more generic headings.

But of course the thing is that calling tagging (or any other graffiti-related activity) a crime sets off a whole series of consequences. First of all, it categorises the activity as something that ‘society’ should be concerned about, should condemn, and should try to prevent. Next, and directly following on from that, it perm its the involvement of the police and other crimino-legal agencies and institutions, and authorises them to ‘respond’ to graffiti. Relatedly, it allows councils to create local laws which authorise the removal of graffiti (consider the fact that councils are compelled to have ‘graffiti management plans’, mainly because graffiti is considered criminal, but not ‘public urination reduction plans’, or ‘bag snatching abatement plans’). Subsequently, if an individual is discovered engaging in a graffiti-related activity, such as tagging, by these crimino-legal agencies (most likely the police), then the categorisation of tagging as ‘criminal’ means that they can be arrested, charged, and prosecuted. Once that’s done, then further consequences follow: an on-the-spot fine, perhaps, or an appearance at the Childrens or Magistrates Court.

Many people assume that when individuals get prosecuted under laws prohibiting graffiti-related activities the punishments available are not harsh. Some might assume the penalties are ‘lenient’.  (After all, it’s only a property crime, right? It’s not as if we are talking about interpersonal violence.) Others might say that the available penalties are ‘not harsh enough’ (and would argue that the effects of property crimes accumulate such that their overall effects are considerable).

So perhaps it’s useful to be reminded that the punishments are not ‘lenient’ or ‘not harsh enough’. A couple of days ago, an 18-year old girl, Cheyene Back, in Sydney was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for writing on a wall in a cafe. (Check out here what the Everfresh boys had to say about this. And click here to read a thoughtful opinion piece about the case by Kurt Iveson.)

According to one news report (thanks for sending the link, Noah!), she wrote her ‘nickname’ (which I presume means her tag) on what’s described as the ‘public wall’ of the Hyde Park Cafe. I’m not sure what ‘public wall’ means – is it the outer wall, or does it mean something else? ‘Public’ wall sounds like ‘legal’ wall, but given that the action led to her being ‘caught’ with ‘a black texta at the scene’, that surely can’t be right. (Perhaps someone from Sydney who knows the Hyde Park Cafe could enlighten me as to what the ‘public wall is…)

Whatever it is, Cheyene has been convicted of the offence of ‘intentionally destroying or damaging property’, and she will go to jail as a result. And all through the chain of consequences set up by the categorisation of the act of writing one’s name on property belonging to another as ‘criminal’.

“I will not draw as I am told…”

I’m typing this in bed, where I’m supposed to be resting up, after being sick with a thoroughly unpleasant combo of sore throat and flu symptoms plus upset stomach. Lovely! I’ve spent a few days feeling too unwell to do anything, and today is supposed to be a day of doing nothing except more lying in bed resting up. But…

…that can get boring, so I’ve been reading other people’s blogs, and eventually the desire to write even a short post got too much for me. And in this little moment of not-doing-what-I-should, I wanted to write about an unknown artist in Amsterdam, whose work I saw all around the city in June. He or she writes: ‘I will not draw as I am told’.

Sometimes these words are written, in looping cursive script, as when I first came across them on a wooden hoarding on Bloemgracht, near where I was staying:

A few days later, I saw another inscription, outside a branch of the ubiquitous Albert Heijn Supermarkets. This time the letters dripped paint, the words running into each other.

Were they painted in greater haste, perhaps? Or was the writer deliberately seeking a particular effect? (There’s a genre of graffiti known as ‘drippies’, made when the writer fills a squeezy plastic ketchup bottle, or some similar container, with paint, and writes drippily on the ground or on a wall…)

Some time later, after my partner and daughter had arrived from Melbourne, we spent a day at Artis, Amsterdam’s wonderful zoo. As we made our way towards Artis’s cafe, hot and longing for an ice-cream, imagine my surprise and delight, when I spotted the same words, written upon a metal container box. The paint was peeling, and the remains of someone else’s paste-up obscured some of the lettering, marking the words as done some considerable time ago.

A few days after that encounter, I was sitting outside the Cafe Belgique in Gravenstraat, carrying out an interview with an Amsterdam artist. The walls outside this tiny bar tend to get covered with paste-ups, stickers, pieces: the bar’s owners are fond of street art and make the walls available to local and visiting artists who in turn use the bar as a kind of unofficial club, meeting there in the evenings for a drink. As I asked my questions and listened to the artist’s answers, my gaze drifted across the alleyway and settled upon a sticker on the wall opposite: “I will not draw as I am told’, it read.

Whoever the author may be, these words seem to encapsulate something about graffiti and street art. Anyone who ‘puts up’ on the street without the property owner’s permission is, by definition, committing a criminal offence, and in doing so, they are refusing to draw as they are told (which would be on canvas, in a studio, for a gallery, with permission, and so on). I’m not trying to claim that graffiti and street art has intrinsic value because of this, but the persistent refusal by its authors and artists to do as they are told seems worthy of remark. In a time when Victoria has just passed some fiercely repressive laws with the potential to criminalise many artists (the Graffiti Prevention Act 2007, about which, there will undoubtedly be more to say in this blog), I find myself to be quietly admiring of the determination to make art on and for the street.

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