Expert Meeting Graffiti as Positive Intervention in Public Space
On September 27 we organized an 'expert meeting' on Brazilian and Dutch street art and policy. The debate was the kick off to the 2011/2012 edition of R.U.A. in Amsterdam.
Brazil is renown for its lively and vibrant street art culture and the government has a relatively open attitude towards graffiti for the decoration of public spaces and as a form of ‘public art’. Regina Monteiro, the director of SP Urbanism, sector of urban planning in São Paulo, was one of the main invitees with the purpose to speak about the law Lei Cidade Limpa she introduced in the city and pass her knowledge and experience on to Dutch policy makers in the public domain. The law prohibits billboard marketing in the city, which means that São Paulo is now a paradise for mural art and graffiti and radically changing the visual landscape of the city.
Graffiti and 'pixação
In Brazil a discursive distinction is made between ‘street art’ and ‘pixação’ (tagging, scratched text). German researcher Matze Jung from the Berlin based Archiv der Jugendkulturen presented his research on graffiti in Rio de Janeiro from a geographical point of view. Whereas graffiti is seen as urban beautification, artistic expression and even, he argues, as the ‘voice of the favela’ the pixação is seen as an urban plague and optical pollution. Street artist Gais from argued that graffiti should be seen as an improvement of public space for the pleasure of the audience, thus pleasing others, while tagging is as a rather egocentric act writing down your name. However, some argue that the pixação is more than a pointless act of writing down one's name. Rio de Janeiro architect Ludmila Rodrigues touched upon how pixação can also be seen as a struggle over space, or power, as they can often be found at the most inaccessible places, like high buildings. In this way, pixação serves another ‘function’ than street art, but should perhaps not be regarded as mere vandalism.
Contrary to Brazil’s progressive policies, in the Netherlands graffiti is prohibited and the word itself carries a very negative connotation. An artist in the audience commented that when she asked permission for a graffiti project the answer is always ‘no’. But when she describes the same project as a mural project it will often be accepted. Murals are art, graffti is vandalism. But can the two really be separated? That question was subject to a heated discussion.
Several comments and examples were coming from the audiences, varying from The Hague policy, where artists can subscribe at a ‘street art agency’ that calls these artists when there will be a mural project in the city. In Delft is a tunnel open for artists to paint, similar to a fence/wall in Amsterdam Oost. In addition, a student in the audience briefly presents his bachelor thesis on street art, in which he proposes a solution to the ‘polluting graffiti’ by fining tagging and rewarding ‘beautiful artworks’ with a grant, or subsidy thus stimulating ‘beautiful graffiti’. Several artists from the audience react indignantly: You cannot distinguish between the two! Who is to decide what art is ‘beautiful’ and what is ‘ugly’? Where lies the boundary? And besides, for someone to become a good artist, he needs to experiment and train himself. A mural doesn’t emerge spontaneously!
A Dutch street artist and founder of the Amsterdam Street Art Foundation Jarno explained that for him, and many graffiti painters with him, the drive to tag is uncontrollable. It’s something he needs to do. Therefore, it’s totally different from graffiti art, but just as important. However, he did recognize the transforming potential of graffiti art. It can totally recover a degraded area; improving the view and the atmosphere. But still, Dutch policy doesn’t facilitate painting. As Angelo Bromet, the initiator of Heesterveld Creative Community (formally Hotspot Heesterveld), noted: Dutch policy makers adore graffiti projects in Rio, but only as long as it stays there. They don’t want it in Southeast.
Painting: process or product?
Matze then added to the discussion on pixação vs graffiti art that we might not only want to look at the outcome of street art. The painting is a creative experience and learning process and therefore, any form of painting is valuable. Another comment came from Onno Vlaanderen, experienced as a former member of the amenities committee of the municipality of Amsterdam argued that, as an artist you are always bending and stretching the rules and laws, see how far you can go. Isn’t that what art is? An experiment? Here we find a major difference between Brazil and the Netherlands: the space the artist experiences to paint. Ludmila, living in the Netherlands for her studies, noticed that the cities of the Netherlands (and Europe) are much more controlled than Brazilian cities. Vigilance, increased security, strict policies, bureaucracy, and so on, hamper painting in many ways. Also the rapid privatization of public spaces calls for new ways in which graffiti art can occur in the city.
Taking over the streets?
There is a long way to go for Dutch street artists to ‘take over the streets’. But is it desirable to open up the dialogue with the government? Shouldn’t street art stay away from bureaucracy and remain ‘underground’ and spontaneous, and uncontrolled? R.U.A. explained how the spaces in Rotterdam in 2009 were found; by lobbying and negotiating with the owners of particular buildings. Most of the artworks are still there today, as the public enjoyed it and wanted the paintings to stay.
The debate by far exceeded the time and still, two hours of discussion wasn’t enough even to define what street art includes, let alone what policies should exist. The 2011/2012 edition of R.U.A. project in Amsterdam at least provided a new thought for artist and policy makers.
Source: Dutch Culture