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Forget the Graffiti, Look Instead at Needs of Young Street Artists

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Your coverage of the Street Art Program of the Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department (Calendar, Aug. 23) has caused me to consider our approach to youth, murals, graffiti and public art issues and art education.

Without doubt, Los Angeles’ No. 1 cultural priority is to develop consistent, effective, interesting and truly accessible children’s programs to provide our under-served communities with access to the arts as a tool for mutual understanding, self-esteem and an alternative to destructive activities such as vandalism, drugs and gangs. While graffiti perpetrators vary in age, the large majority of them are kids for whom our programs are designed.

Recently, the Los Angeles City Council adopted an L.A. Children’s Policy. Introduced by Councilman Richard Alatorre, it provides the youth in this city a “Bill of Rights” that is articulated with much sensitivity and vision. Kids in this city have a right to develop, learn, play and strive for full potential. It asserts the child’s right to health and safety, basic nutrition, shelter, cultural heritage and free expression in an environment free from abuse, neglect or other dangers.

Obviously, we have a long way to go to achieve this potential, but this policy is the first step toward codifying these needs within the city’s structure.

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The city’s official Cultural Masterplan also devotes a full chapter to youth and education issues and the role of the arts in mitigating some of the youth problems that face our city. Finally, we are developing a citywide Murals Policy, which defines and articulates the differences between murals, street art and illegal graffiti vandalism.

In this Mural Policy, we attempt to draw the line between what is art and what is simply destruction of private and public property. We differentiate between urban aesthetics and visual blight, and we propose opportunities for talented young artists while supporting serious counseling, mandatory clean-up and prosecution for youth who insist on vandalizing our neighborhoods.

Much rhetoric has been devoted to the question of whether graffiti are art. My conclusion is that some types of graffiti have developed into an urban typographical style that can at times be elevated by an artist (or writer) to an aesthetic level.

However, most of what we see scrawled all over our mini malls, retaining walls, traffic signs, schools and some of our homes is poorly written gang communications, or self promotion in the form of “tags” employed by kids with lots of exposure to contemporary advertising practices and too much free time.

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Only rarely do you encounter a work of illegal graffito with the message, technique and care devoted to it that warrants any level of aesthetic admiration. Even so, if it violates the law and social protocols such as respect for private property, public safety and community approval, then it is considered a form of “guerrilla street art” that is accountable to negative community response and to the social conventions that warrant its removal.

Marcel Duchamp, the father of conceptual art, once proclaimed that something was art if an artist claimed it to be, and many will assert that some graffiti have the historic provenance and the complex semiological and aesthetic properties to qualify. Whether it is or not does not matter. The point is that even your own personal favorite art masterpiece would not be acceptable plastered everywhere in this city without your consent. Graffiti have to be contained.

For us, the possible artistic value of some graffiti is a secondary issue. The most important question is how to address the hopes, aspirations, needs and guaranteed freedom of expression of the many preteen and teen-age kids of all ethnic backgrounds who consider themselves street artists, and how to capitalize on what has become a multicultural youth art movement where kids of all backgrounds can stand side by side creating art next to each other instead of shooting each other.

The Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department has been working for several years on a comprehensive approach toward providing cultural services to kids around the city. Some of our youth arts programs address the problem of graffiti and attempt to provide alternatives for talented young artists and writers who have elected to do their work on the street because of lack of creative outlets.

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Our approach has been to provide them with alternative cultural activities while educating them to the environmental and health hazards of illegal graffiti or guerrilla street art, and the legal and moral issues of vandalism and destruction of private and public property. Over the last three years, as this city and the region have intensified efforts to combat graffiti, our programs--designed to give bona-fide “street artists” avenues for expressing themselves--have become more needed.

We also have served as the only source of education and moral support for very creative children who have developed their personal interest and talent the only way they’ve had available, but who now face increasingly hostile community pressure and more effective anti-graffiti laws that are confronting them. We have served as a source of information and educational outreach to help youngsters face facts about graffiti vandalism.

In the recent past, our job has been unpopular and difficult as the Los Angeles community initially focused on the problems of graffiti. The initial response was of anger, and a common resolve to simply fight back, clean all the walls in the city and arrest the perpetrators. This approach has tried to get a handle on the graffiti problem without addressing the youth service infrastructure. It is strictly punitive to otherwise under-served youth who we have systematically ignored, and misses the fact that graffiti are a symptom of the social and demographic changes that grip our city.

This has been a justified and understandable response from the community as it struggled to gain control of what was becoming an overwhelming problem but it is not turning the tide on graffiti vandalism. Currently, as the community response to graffiti matures, the anger has to subside so the complexity of the issue will be appreciated. As well as providing for punitive measures, the city should also promote preventive programs which help redirect our youth into constructive avenues of art and creative expression.

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