Graffiti-Learjet.jpg

Well, Maybe This is a Crime

Graffiti can be a crime. There, I said it. And Saber agrees.

On September 19, it will be two years since the graffiti artist hired an aircraft team of six skywriters to make his declaration "ART IS NOT A CRIME" and demand to "END MURAL MORATORIUM" linger over City Hall. Tagging the sky became a call-to-action for muralists and graffiti artists, not just for Saber.

On July 22 of that same year, an early think tank for the mural ordinance, led by Tanner Blackman, had a roundtable at SCI-Arc. It was the first of numerous public meetings that revealed that within the solidarity of artists there are disagreements of aesthetic process.

It's two years later. The mural ordinance that first swaggered into City Hall has limped through Planning and Land Use Management (PLUM), revised and reexamined until the original document looks like an Arts District wall covered in layers of wheat-pastes and stickers.

Despite details still being haggled over, including how graffiti-based art on walls will be approved in certain sections of Los Angeles, the ordinance was passed by PLUM on Tuesday. That was no surprise. Councilmember José Huizar, who authored 19 motions supporting murals since 2008, sent out a memo Monday night stating that he selected the mural ordinance as his "first major item for the committee" he now chairs. It will appear before City Council August 20.

The mural ordinance will not be a catch-all for everything that will happen in the evolving culture of murals, and street art, however. And if passed, it won't be a protective shield for vandals.

For the sake of art, graffiti artists may have to be ready to not blindly defend tags based on principle.

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With LAPD and Feds tracking down the vandals who broke in a secure area of Van Nuys Airport to mark a multi-million-dollar Learjet with the word "Flame" on July 13, you wonder how graffiti artists who push back against the criminalization of any aerosolists would react. And what did Saber say about the jet tag? When asked a week ago, he looked it up and had a quick answer.

"This is definitely a crime," he said.

"This is an extreme case," said Saber of the tagger's use of graffiti bombing being a breach of aviation security, which investigators suspect was done by someone with a tie to a gang. Yet, Saber is not contradicting his larger mission to bring awareness that artists are considered guilty before proven innocent by Los Angeles County Sheriff's and LAPD.

"As far as law enforcement and a certain city, I am considered a gang member," says Saber. "Which is not true whatsoever -- and an insult to real gang member."

Yet, graffiti artists may have to let go of the argument that cops are not qualified to make a judgment of what is art, acting as an ad hoc public art curator. The popularity of street art, and graffiti, has attracted consumers who do not traditionally purchase art. For artists to say an untrained eye can judge what they want in their home as art, yet, claim police cannot determine when "art" becomes vandalism, is flawed.

Now with the ordinance, which will allow graffiti-style works to be produced with consent, moving forward, law enforcement's habit of telling business owners who commission their walls with works will have to adjust. The old "you are enabling a gang member" line should come to an end.

"Murals in L.A. can only be defined by a co-relationship with the artist and building owner," says Saber, and suggests any "sick piece" he paints, without the consent of the property owner, is not a mural as defined by the potential ordinance.

Intent and consent may lead to the simplest way to define what is legal. Consent by private or civic property owner, after the intent is made clear, defines paint on a wall as art that is not a crime.

And just as art is defined by intent, crime is defined by motive.

Easily, the goal of a tag isn't art. It's to alter infrastructure to make a long-standing statement of presence without consent, and qualifies the action as vandalism, despite what predetermined aesthetic was used.

Common sense is often used in other cases. Law enforcement agencies who sponsor boxing clubs for youths will agree that if two people fight with rules, it's a competitive sport. If there is no mutual consent -- by one or both fighters -- and begin to strike each other outside the controlled environment, say in the street after a match, the intent is to dominate one over the other as a personal statement is aggravated assault.

For a city that wants to ramp up its creative economy, they may want to prepare an internal consensus on the difference between a graffiti artist who use authorized space, which is art, and tagging, which is a crime.


Watch Saber "tagging the sky" in the video below:


Top: Lear Jet tag at Van Nuys Airport. Photo: AVWeb

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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