Graffiti: when preservation’s foe becomes its focus (Part 1)

I have an admission to make that might seem paradoxical, coming from a preservationist: I am guilty of liking graffiti. I would never say so without exception or qualification, and I’ll state for the record that I don’t advocate graffiti, and I abhor the reckless use of historic buildings as spray-paint canvases…but in certain rare cases, as I’ve previously mentioned, I just can’t help but find it appealing. From 2007 to 2008, a time when Banksy’s bravado was reaching new heights of popularity, I was living outside of London. While there was plenty else to occupy my eyes in my favorite city, I remember the thrill of turning down a new street and finding another one of his recognizable rats. Equally provocative was the narrative that arose as state authorities and the public were cornered into the role of street art curators, and graffiti, so often the bane of preservationists, became the object of preservation itself.

Banksy, Sweep at Hoxton, Wikimedia Commons

Banksy echoes many other graffiti artists when he explains that much of the thrill of his work stems from its illegality. In his own words, “You could stick all my shit in Tate Modern and have an opening with Tony Blair and Kate Moss on rollerblades handing out vol-au-vents and it wouldn’t be as exciting as when you go out and you paint something big where you shouldn’t do.” He has called himself an “art terrorist,” and some property owners and residents feel accordingly victimized when graffiti appears in their communities. Various state authorities categorize graffiti as a quality of life crime, an environmental crime, and an antisocial behavior. Graffiti is blamed for reducing property values, causing community members, tourists, and retail customers to feel unsafe, reducing the enjoyment of public spaces, and, if not quickly removed from an area, encouraging more graffiti to be added there.

In London, graffiti is linked with rubbish as the target of clean street initiatives. It is frequently described by state authorities as “unsightly,” as it is “a sign of a neglected neighbourhood and is associated with increased levels of crime and the fear of crime.” According to the Council of the London borough of Southwark, “Graffiti is vandalism and it’s become a really expensive problem. Removing graffiti costs the UK over £1 billion a year. We and other agencies have to remove graffiti from walls, street furniture, telephone boxes, bus shelters, monuments and even gravestones.” Countering graffiti is the responsibility of individual boroughs, and each has its own policy regarding graffiti removal. In addition to removing graffiti from public spaces and council-owned property, many boroughs provide free removal from business and residential properties, in some cases only when the graffiti is visible from a street. The amount of time in which a request for graffiti removal will be answered varies for different boroughs, but one commonality is that response time decreases significantly for graffiti that is deemed “racist or offensive.” Some boroughs are particularly severe in setting forth their stances on graffiti. Merton Council, for example, states that “Graffiti is an eyesore that nobody in the borough wants to see. It is also criminal damage and we are determined to stop it.” Merton is a founding member of South West Action Against Graffiti, or SWAAG, which is “a group of southwest London councils who, along with the police, are determined to fight graffiti on all fronts.” The Council of Barking and Dagenham, another member of SWAAG, warns that “graffiti is often the first element in a spiral of decline” and declares that “its artistic merits are irrelevant. It represents one group of people imposing themselves on everyone else and as such is a form of pollution, like people playing loud music.”

The matter of graffiti’s artistic merit is not so straightforward to the many people who view graffiti work such as that of Banksy as more art than eyesore. The rise of Banksy created a dilemma for local authorities, particularly in the London boroughs and other areas of England that were fortunate enough to receive the gift of his artwork, or alternatively, wronged by his “guerilla art.” Many local authorities yielded to the pressure of Banksy’s public support and chose not to remove his work. Council workers in Islington went so far as to restore Banksy works that had been vandalized by the tags of other graffiti writers. According to an Evening Standard article posted by a seemingly bemused Banksy on his own website, Islington Council “defended its policy to clean up and repair the artist’s work. It insisted it was spending taxpayers’ money on the operation in response to residents’ demands.”

In July 2006, the City Council of Bristol was faced with the question of whether or not to order the removal of a Banksy piece near their offices showing a woman in her underwear, a suited man leaning out of a window, and a nude man, presumably the woman’s lover, hanging from the window ledge. The Council decided to ask the public via an internet discussion forum whether or not the piece should be allowed to remain. When ninety-seven percent of responses were in favor of keeping the work, with only six people dissenting, the Council decided that the piece was worthy of being kept, although Councillor Gary Hopkins stressed that “the decision to keep this Banksy image is not a green light for more graffiti in the city.” This incident perfectly illustrates the way in which the rise of graffiti found state officials and the public placed into the role of art critic. Given the nature of Banksy’s work as both illegal and arguably artistic, both state and public were forced to reconsider their definitions of graffiti and decide whether art should transcend the law. In the case of Bristol’s “naked man mural,” the state, disregarding the clear illegality of Banksy’s art, made a judgment of his work based on the deciding factor of public appreciation. Banksy’s response to the incident was, “I think it’s pretty incredible a city council is prepared to make value judgments about preserving illegally painted graffiti. I’m kind of proud of them.” Six months later, after an early Banksy mural was mistakenly removed when contractors were hired by Bristol City Council to “tackle graffiti adjacent to the Banksy work, but wrongly targeted the piece itself,” the Council seemed more sure about its position on Banksy graffiti. It ordered “an investigation into the blunder” and that “all Banksy works in the city…be preserved.”

Other councils, however, offered no apology for their removal of Banksy works. Hackney Council was particularly firm in its anti-graffiti, and therefore anti-Banksy stance, calling for the removal of a number of Banksy works. In February 2008, the Council showed initial signs of yielding to public pressure by allowing a Banksy piece to remain; however, it called for the removal of a portion of the piece, censoring an image of male genitalia that was deemed offensive. Local residents complained that they should have been consulted first, as in the Bristol case. As one resident said, “We’ve been given a work of art. It’s a shame the council have defaced it.” However, a spokesman for the Council argued, “We can’t make a decision on whether something is art or graffiti. The Government judges us on the number of clean walls we have.” Transport for London made a similar argument in response to public outcry when it had a Banksy mural near Old Street Tube station removed. Referring to its “tough line” on graffiti removal, TfL stated, “We have no intention of changing this policy as it makes the transport system safer and more pleasant for passengers. We recognize that there are those who view Banksy’s work as legitimate art, but sadly our graffiti removal teams are staffed by professional cleaners, not professional art critics.”

(To be continued…)

The Packrat Gene: an almost uncanny update

Last month, I speculated that genetics and “packratism” were largely to blame for my becoming a preservationist. Today, I’ve been smiling for hours since I found in my mailbox unexpected and nearly unbelievable proof that I was right.

Since my grandma passed away last year, my aunt has been sifting through the museum of her house in New Braunfels, Texas. It has been a slow job, despite the fact that Grandma left all of her keepsakes sorted in labeled boxes and Ziploc bags—or more accurately, because of it. My aunt and parents have uncovered treasures from Grandma’s past that they didn’t know existed, and might never have found if it hadn’t been for her archival system.

She often mailed notes—always handwritten in cursive—in envelopes thickened with clipped coupons, newspaper articles, and comic strips (a habit my mom has happily since adopted). In the mail this afternoon, I received an envelope from my aunt with a note (handwritten in cursive) explaining that she had found a cartoon, clipped from a newspaper by Grandma, at the bottom of a box, and had immediately remembered my blog post.

I swear that I had never seen this before launching my defense of the archival mindset also known as packrattiness, or even talked to Grandma about the idea. See for yourself; this might look like just a comic strip, but to me, it is part of a continuing confirmation that life is a comedy, and death isn’t much of a separation, after all.

Tesserae and talking walls

I have a number of favorite places in the Washington, DC, area— the first, naturally, being my family’s home. Not far down on the list is the monumental National Building Museum, where this past weekend I went to see Walls Speak: The Narrative Art of Hildreth Meière. (The exhibit is up through January 2, 2012; see it for yourself!) Meière was a noted figure in the Art Deco movement who collaborated with architects and craftsmen to create painted murals, wool tapestries, marble floors, and especially glass and marble mosaics. From her initial pencil sketches, full-size studies (“cartoons”), and models that were featured in the exhibit arise, as advertised, several narratives: first, that of Meière’s own life. After studying at an Academy of the Sacred Heart (like me!) in New York, and later in San Francisco, Chicago, and Florence, she worked as a mapmaker and architectural drafts-woman for the navy during World War I. She then made a career of integrating art into built spaces and was the first woman elected to the New York City Arts Commission, as well as the first to receive the Fine Arts Medal from the American Institute of Architects. She served on the boards of various organizations, including the Municipal Art Society, as Vice President of the Architectural League of New York, and as President of the National Society of Mural Painters.

Nebraska State Capitol Ceiling, by Dave Parker, Wikimedia Commons

Acclaimed for the almost exclusively narrative nature of her work, Meière combined material innovation with an affinity (one I would like to call “writerly”) for portraying symbol and story. Her first architectural commission, for the National Academy of Sciences in 1924, was to interpret scientific concepts as imagery, painted over Guastavino’s Akoustolith tile to resemble glazed ceramic. Soon afterward, she completed the work that would endure as her personal favorite: scenes inspired by Hartley Burr Alexander’s iconography, ceramic tile surrounded by Akoustolith in the Nebraska State Capitol. She went on to study and illustrate a wide range of subject matter, from a dome’s worth of apostles and six-winged seraphim, drawn with tiny glass tesserae in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, to her painted mural for Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition, with three vignettes celebrating women’s progress from 1833 to 1933. Perhaps most well-known are her iconic roundels on the facade of Radio City Music Hall, which used a new process for exterior mixed metals to depict drama, dance, and song. With paint, metal, and bits of glass, Meière made storytellers of ceilings and walls.

Ultimately, “Walls Speak” refers to, and itself is part of, an overarching preservation narrative, one that pieces together and perpetuates Meière’s life story and the stories contained in her work. The museum walls speak, too—of the need for such history to be valued and maintained. For her last commission, she proposed a series of vignettes for wall niches in the National Cathedral; rejected in favor of a more abstract design, they survive through her saved drawings. Her final commercial commission in 1960, a year before her death, told the legend of Hercules through marble mosaic at Prudential Plaza. The work, irreparably harmed during a 1996 remodeling, now endures through photographs and cartoons. Likewise, Meière’s sculpture on the exterior of the RKO Theater, which showed “talkies” as part of Rockefeller Center, had been destroyed with the building in 1954; her drawings, however, preserve its memory. The exhibit describes her large-scale works for the New York World’s Fair, which now exist only as models: “At the close of the 1939 Fair, all of the art work was destroyed. This did not disturb Meière, who believed that the fun was in creating the objects, whether or not they endured.” (Her attitude sounds rather similar to that of a certain gum-wad painter we know, doesn’t it?) With all due respect to Meière’s beliefs, I will admit to being disturbed, but simultaneously relieved that the narrative art of Hildreth Meière will persist, with some assistance from the narrative art of preservation.

Gum-wad paintings and the value of transience

What does chewing gum have to do with historic preservation? No, this is not going to be a request that you refrain from using the walls of ancient monuments as receptacles for spit-sticky globs. (Really, though…please don’t do that.) Last month, I read an article in The New York Times“Whimsical Works of Art, Found Sticking to the Sidewalk,” by Sarah Lyall—about an artist with an unusual taste in canvases. For six years, Ben Wilson has created thousands of miniature paintings on bits of chewed gum dotting London pavements. Now a local celebrity, Wilson maintains a backlog of requests for gum paintings to express a melange of messages, from memorials to marriage proposals. Lyall describes the collection concentrated in Wilson’s community of Muswell Hill as “a chronicle of the neighborhood, a representation of its residents’ whimsies, sorrows and passions.” Meanwhile, borough councils enact street cleaning programs to remove chewing gum, fighting the illegal littering on which Wilson’s art both comments and depends.

By Andrew Testa for The New York Times

In reading about Wilson’s work, I couldn’t help but notice parallels to historic preservation. First, the metamorphosis of masticated, flavor-sapped gum into artwork provides a rather colorful metaphor for tasteful adaptive reuse. The article more directly, albeit briefly, addresses the preservation—or lack thereof—of Wilson’s art itself: “Mr. Wilson said he did not mind if his paintings were washed away or torn up for repaving or ruined by urban grime. ‘Everything is transitory,’ he said. ‘What’s important is the creative process.'”

Wilson’s popularity calls to mind the early success of another British street artist, the ubiquitous yet elusive Banksy, who has since become a global phenomenon. Banksy’s distinctive works of stencil graffiti are highly coveted, largely accepted by the art world he intentionally operates outside of, and in some cases are even conserved by local authorities who otherwise devote blight-fighting resources to graffiti erasure. Inspired by Banksy’s popularity, in May 2008, London’s Tate Modern went so far as to invite six international graffiti artists to participate in an exhibition called ‘Street Art’ by painting on the museum’s brick façade.

Am I suggesting that curators will soon be affixing soggy gum to the walls of MOMA for Ben Wilson to paint? Well, who knows? Regardless, the stories of Wilson and Banksy raise questions about preserving the transient, questions which extend to the preservation of architecture. The same issues of context and original intent that would arise in protecting a Wilson painting or removing it to a gallery, also apply in the case of structures built to be temporary (the Zonnestraal Sanatorium, for example, or postwar prefab houses). In addition, this comparison leads to considering what degree of public appreciation might be needed and what methods might be used to preserve the story of buildings that for some reason can’t be physically safeguarded. Heritage preservation is not always dependent on material perpetuation. The issue of how else to lend permanence to the impermanent, how to save architectural gum wads, is one that I’m hoping to explore.

Dates and foundations

Vera Taylor, 1920-2010

I spend quite a lot of time considering what it means to spend time. One conclusion I have reached is that, to me, dates are objective correlatives, talismans of memory. I tend to equate forgottenness with loss; if I will have no way of recalling in exactly a year’s time what I was doing on today’s date, the present seems doomed to oblivion.

Maybe parallel thoughts led my grandmother, Vera Taylor, to begin the journal that she kept for decades. Cursive words and a stack of black, bound volumes hold a daily chronicle of her life: where she went, what she did, and who was there. She held phone conversations at her desk, jotting the news she learned from family and friends; when she would ask for a name to be spelled, I knew what I had said somehow merited recording. She noted special meals, and sometimes seemingly mundane ones; “Don’t you want to remember what you ate for breakfast growing up?” she would ask, enticing me with the threat of lost memories, however small, to start a journal of my own. But I never did for more than a few weeks at a try, and Grandma remained the only diarist in the family. Through the years, we had many evenings of cherry pie and debates over family chronology — attempts at calculating the date when someone’s old friend came to visit, or when someone lost a tooth — that Grandma always concluded with, “Let me check my journal.”

I will never forget what I was doing on this date last year, when I drove with my parents and sister from Grandma’s home in New Braunfels to the town of Uvalde in southwest Texas. I remember the day as a series of passed places: the house where Grandma’s mother lived, where my dad remembered visiting his own grandmother; the singing school where Grandma’s father-in-law, my great-grandfather, taught — now an empty lot; the department store where my grandfather worked long ago; the cemetery where he was buried, and where we lay Grandma beside him, one year ago today. Places are talismans of memory, too.

The last direction my life took that Grandma was aware of, was that I would soon be entering the Historic Preservation program at Columbia’s architecture school. When I told her of my plans, she said that Grandpa, who had owned a lumber yard and was a self-taught architect, would be proud. She insisted that I lay claim to his old drafting table, although I can’t claim a single bit of his design talent, and from a back room she retrieved sets of Grandpa’s blueprints for the houses he designed and built for his (my) family. To the degree that my being a preservationist is genetic, a large portion of those genes come from Grandpa, and an equally large portion from Grandma. I know that she is just as much to blame because of the fact that those blueprints were folded in a box labeled “blueprints,” one of many labeled boxes in her house, and that her immediate response to my announcement was to reach for her journal. Grandma was the archivist of her own history and, therefore, of mine.

Today, then, seems a fitting date on which to begin this blog. storybuilding is not a journal per se, but a means of preserving my own experiences and thoughts, not because I assume their worth to anyone else but because I value them for my time spent. Here is where I will store stories and write about adventures that occur, ideas that occur to me — usually about preservation, and its intersections with literature and art — and perhaps occasionally, just for the record, what I ate for breakfast.