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As gallery interest in street art grows (MOCA’s major exhibition, Art in the Streets, is on now), the debate continues over what street art is and how it affects communities
We asked a street artist, the LAPD, the executive director of Los Angeles’s Department of Cultural Affairs, and a local art history professor to weigh in:
Lieutenant Paul Vernon
Commanding officer, LAPD Central Detective Division
Street art is kind of a mixed bag for the LAPD in that we are here to protect property and people’s rights, and art has an aspect of people expressing themselves. But when it comes to street art, it’s often people expressing themselves on other people’s property.
So that becomes problematic for the police department, and we have to investigate that.
Recently we had an issue come up regarding street art that has never really raised its head before. We responded to a call about what appeared to be an apple hanging from a tree on 1st Street, east of Alameda near the Gold Line train station. An ex-marine walked by and saw what looked to be an apple hanging from a string, and he noticed the top looked like the top of a hand grenade. He realized, Oh, my God, that might be something disguised, and we called in the bomb squad. Hundreds of man-hours later, it ended up being a piece of Styrofoam with the top of a real hand grenade.
I researched it the next day and found out that the apple was street art hung there by an artist, and several Web sites were mocking us for responding and not recognizing it for what it is. When street art resembles weapons in the days of terrorism, we have a huge problem.
Here’s the potential threat something like that gives to the city: Should the police become climatized to the idea that it’s street art, so should we just ignore it? Or do we continue to respond to these situations even though they’re probably not a threat, because we have to make sure terrorists aren’t using street art and it becomes a trend? The shocking thing and scary thing about this is a terrorist could now try to hide a bomb in plain sight under the guise of street art. So we have to respond in spite of the mocking, in spite of what the artists think. That means taking the police department away from other crime and investigating other threats, all because someone wants to express himself or herself in public. In that way, street art can present significant danger to the city. And that probably costs thousands of dollars for the city when we don’t have enough money to budget for police.
If someone starts throwing up slap tags in your neighborhood or on the street where you live, near the house that you are trying to sell, how does that affect you? Doing that is the hype of ego. It’s the hype of narcissism.
So street artists, while you want everyone to respect your opinion and your right to express yourself, respect everyone’s personal property and their right to be able to live their lives without having your opinion foisted on them. Please don’t compromise public safety for your ability to express yourself.
Executive director, City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs
How does street art affect Los Angeles? In its broadest sense, street art can encompass a remarkable diversity in message, style, materials, and community involvement in the creative process. The art of the streets, whether traditional murals, aerosol graffiti-style works, paper handbills, or other forms, can express the concerns, cultural icons, and celebrations shared by a community. It also has the ability to expose divergent aesthetic perspectives and social tensions within and between communities.
Los Angeles is incredibly heterogeneous in all aspects of society. Within this unique urban environment, the diverse interests of the city, residents, property owners, artists, and other community stakeholders converge in impassioned dialogue over visual space. There is a continuous debate over the rights of the individual, private entities, and government over the control of the public realm. Los Angeles also has a long history of artist and community expression through art and mark making, whether officially sanctioned, created with owner permission, or illegally applied.
There are few easy answers to these concerns, but it is a testament to L.A. and its people that this debate can happen in a civil, thought-provoking manner. Recently questions about the nature, appropriateness, and role of street art have made headlines and broadened this discourse. It is in this role as a catalyst for conversation about these issues—and, at its core, recognition of our values and desires for our visual landscape—that street art can have its greatest impact.
UCLA professor of art history and co-author with Claire Farago of Art Is Not What You Think It Is