For many people, graffiti is a symbol of blight, gangs and sinking property values. But to Tim Power of North Hollywood, graffiti is simply art.
"It's a very expressive and original art form. It's not something to be put down; there are a lot of talented young people in Los Angeles who are graffiti artists," he said.
Power, 25, is the publisher of Can Control, a triennial, 23-page magazine that showcases multicolored, often illegal, spray-painted designs from around the world. His 5-year-old publication has a circulation of 5,000, and subscribers live as far away as Australia and Yugoslavia, but most of the readers and the graffiti he shows are in the Los Angeles area.
The magazine is sold at music and comic book stores throughout Los Angeles, as well as in other major cities where graffiti art is either becoming popular or running rampant, depending on your outlook.
"It sells out fairly quickly when we get it," said Jon Barbee of Golden Apple Comics in Northridge. "The buyers are usually kids between the ages of 15 and 19 who look like they're involved in graffiti. But, surprisingly, their parents often come with them when they buy it."
And, according to Power, interest in Can Control also extends beyond those involved in graffiti art. "Some of the retailers who sell it say it's often bought by civilians, or those who don't do graffiti art."
Can Control, which sells for $4 a copy, features photographs of urban art fresh from the spray can, usually taken by Power or sent to him from subscribers. He also writes the interviews with artists in which they discuss their art philosophies, and new sections on comic art and music have been added as Power tries to appeal to his readers' interests.
Without a background in magazine publishing, Power has had to learn by doing as his magazine went from a black-and-white newsprint tabloid to a glossy four-color publication last year. He says he turns a profit, an achievement in a slumping industry, but he makes his money generally through subscription and newsstand sales, not advertising.
"The money comes in, but there's often a delay, and it's hard to manage the flow," he said. "There's usually about six advertisers per issue, selling comics or records, and I'm trying to increase the amount of advertising. I've also started selling T-shirts and sweat shirts with our Can Control logo on them through the magazine."
If there's a message in Can Control, it's that there's a difference between graffiti art and other forms of graffiti. "The biggest problem we have is proving that we're separate from the gangs, and we're also separate from the taggers," Power said.
According to Power, gang graffiti, which often marks out territories, and tagging, in which someone spray-paints a name on virtually any blank surface they can find, gets lumped together with those who use cans of Krylon to be creative.
"The kids who really want to be artists need some support from the community and their peers. The artists I know of don't paint on homes, schools, churches or other private property. They are not gang members and they shouldn't be treated like criminals."
Others, however, would rather see the readers of Can Control under police control.
"I don't care whether it's a beautiful mural or someone's name, if it's not put up legally, with permission, it's vandalism," said Hannah Dyke, president of the Sylmar Graffiti Busters, a grass-roots organization of Sylmar residents and business owners that opposes all forms of graffiti. "If they're not defacing private property, they're defacing public property, which belongs to everyone. Our tax dollars have to be spent cleaning it up."
Power contends that while some of the graffiti he photographs and publishes has been painted illegally, the artists he works with are interested in finding legitimate places to work. "I've been to meetings of the city's Cultural Arts Commission on graffiti art and you'd be surprised by the number of kids who show up wanting more legal outlets for their art."
At present, the commission has authorized two sites near downtown Los Angeles where graffiti artists can work: the Belmont Tunnel at 1st and Glendale streets and the corner of Sunset and Santa Monica boulevards.
"The problem is that you have kids who say they're graffiti artists and they'll use the legal sites, then they'll go out and vandalize a building," said Jay Beswick, founder of the National Graffiti Information Network, a consulting organization for community groups based in Encino. "It's hard to see someone as a legitimate artist if they're vandalizing."
Perhaps the biggest question in the controversy is whether the murals, designs and slogans created by the graffiti artists are art, since it may be that one person's art is another's vandalism.
"Each individual defines art their own way. When we see something that's visually assaultive, such as graffiti, we often don't like that defiance of civic pride," said Louise Lewis, a professor of art history at Cal State Northridge.
"I don't like much of the graffiti I see, but I've also seen some very good graffiti around Los Angeles. We're in an area with a climate conducive to having great murals and public art; it's unfortunate we can't agree on what they should look like," Lewis said.
Can Control tries to stay above the issue of legitimacy, focusing on the work of the artists. "We try to show the art that appears in Los Angeles and in other cities around the world before it's removed. The magazine is a way of preserving it," Power said.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Power began to paint while in his teens. "Some friends and I started spray-painting the names of punk rock bands on walls, and we'd try to be creative, writing in the 'cholo' style of printing used by Latino artists. In 1985, I started to use the more technical bubble-style lettering, which became popular in the subway art of New York City."
When he wasn't painting, Power was working on his two favorite hobbies, photography and cooking. He attended several cooking schools and worked in kitchens at Marriott and Holiday Inn hotels. "I love to cook, but I hated having to be in the kitchen at 5 a.m, which made it pretty boring."
Power began to work as a free-lance photographer and saw the value in getting good pictures of his graffiti art. "You might spend two hours or more on a special piece and the next day it could be gone. There aren't enough legal graffiti parks, so artists are constantly painting over the work of others and, when an artist works at an illegal area, the painting is usually covered up very quickly. The more I painted and photographed my art, the more important it seemed to share it with the world."
He developed the idea for the magazine in 1987 after noticing how other graffiti artists liked to see his work and the work of their peers. Power collected the photographs, editorial copy and advertising, rented time on an Apple computer to produce the layout and handled the distribution himself.
Initially called Ghetto Art, the magazine changed its name last year to pay tribute to the artists published. "Can control" in the language of graffiti artists is the ability to create whatever shapes or lines you want. "When you're working with spray cans, it's not easy to correct a mistake. You've got to be skilled in operating the can," he said.
Today, Can Control is published in Power's apartment. He has a copy editor and writers who work on columns that examine trends in music and comic book art, while he serves as art director selecting the photos used in each issue.
Power's efforts to help the budding graffiti art scene include the selling by mail order of a specialized tip for paint cans. Sales of the tips, 17 for $3, bring in a little revenue for the magazine, but Power believes that more importantly he's giving back something to his readers.
"One of the problems artists have had is that while Krylon spray paint is the best for what we do, the spray tip that comes with the can doesn't give you the same look as another brand. What has happened is that kids have gone in and bought the Krylon, but have stolen the tips off of the other brand, which has hurt the stores that sell spray paint.
"I found the company that sells the better tips and bought thousands of them. People who see the magazine now can order the tips from me, and the stores don't have to have their cans damaged."
He sees the efforts to stifle graffiti art as damaging to more than just the artists. "We create business for the people who make spray paint and the retailers, as well as the people who make their livings removing graffiti. The artists generate a lot of money, and it just can't stop suddenly."
Can Control is a way to get youths who might otherwise be interested in gangs or drugs involved in art, according to Power. "The magazine is positive; it's not about putting anyone down. If I get a photo of graffiti art in Australia and I print it, I've given that work tremendous exposure to others interested in the art. I've received letters from people in Kansas who want information about graffiti art because they have no outlets for it there; I can help them. I just wish our community can give us half as much support."