Graffiti: The Last Word

Thanks to the many people who left comments on our post Wallyhood Endorses Vandalism this past Saturday. Hearing your points of view helped us clarify our own thinking. Jonah, this constitutes our “official response” (and the last we’ll post on this for some time, we promise):

We stand by our original position that while “tagging”-type graffiti is nasty and should be a punished crime, the artfully altered signs by Bagley and 39th were not nasty and should have been left for the neighbors to enjoy.

Yes, those signs belonged to the city and no, the artist did not have the permission of the city to alter them. Yes, that makes it illegal. However, we don’t base our view of right and wrong simply on what’s legal.

The psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg once laid out a six stage theory of moral development. The First Level, “Pre-Conventional” included two stages, “Obedience and punishment orientation” (How can I avoid punishment?) and “Self-interest orientation” (What’s in it for me?). The second Level, “Conventional“, included “Interpersonal accord and conformity” (Social norms) and “Authority and social-order maintaining orientation” (Law and order morality). Finally, the third level included what he termed “social contract orientation” and, finally the third, “Post-Conventional“, level included “Social contract orientation” and finally, the sixth and highest stage, “Universal ethical principles”.

Those who declare “it’s illegal, thus it must be wrong” espouse a “Conventional” level of morality. However, at the Post-Conventional stage of morality:

Laws are valid only insofar as they are grounded in justice, and a commitment to justice carries with it an obligation to disobey unjust laws. […] action is never a means but always an end in itself; the individual acts because it is right, and not because it is instrumental, expected, legal, or previously agreed upon.

We have the freedom to choose what is right and wrong through consideration. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Ralph Waldo Emerson, and so says we.

The community’s consensus should determine what is allowable. There’s an obvious precedent: what types of nudity and sexuality may be displayed publicly varies depending on where you are . As we’ve previously noted, this type of purely subjective-based assessment was enshrined by the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who said “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description [“hard-core pornography”]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.”

That’s it. That’s good enough. While Jonah rejects the notion that “good graffiti is OK while bad graffiti is not” as “painfully subjective”, we do not. Subjectivity is OK. The people of Wallingford appreciated that art. They wanted it and now they miss it. What foolishness that it was removed!

So, while we tend to agree with Gleep’s comment: “Art, whether it’s good or bad, is about the viewer. Tagging is about the tagger, which makes it narcissistic piddling,” we’re not even sure we need to formalize the rules of judgment that much. We, Wallingford, get to decide what goes in our neighborhood. Some douchebag’s name in spraypaint script? No! Stop for me, it’s the Claw? Yes!

Finally, in our first exchange with, we stated that if a talented artist asked for a wall to paint on, we believed someone would provide it. Jonah challenged us, suggesting no such walls would be forthcoming.

In closing, then, we point you at the walls of Tubs, the now defunct hot tub lounge in the University District. In March 2009, the Free Sheep Foundation asked if they could paint the walls of the building, which was scheduled for demolition. Behold the results:

(Thanks @shawnhenning for the link!)

  1. Rob said,

    I guess this isn’t exactly cogent to your art/not-art argument, but I think the real problem here is the public safety aspect. I haven’t actually seem these signs, and I’m sure they’re fun and people enjoy them, but therein lies the problem. If they’re now distracting to the point of no longer doing their job, then that’s a problem. It may be a little on the sky is falling side, but do you really want some kid or whoever to get hit by a car because, in part at least, the driver was laughing at the signs? I think the city should take a zero-tolerance stand on people altering public safety signs, markings, etc.
    I mean really–Wallingford’s narrow, car-filled residential streets and intersections are dangerous enough.

    Mon, May 24 at 10:25 am
  2. E30 Memorial said,

    Please be aware that as Editor-in-chief you speak for, YOU do not speak for the Wallingford neighorhood! Wallingford is part of the City of Seattle which has laws and codes. If you don’t like them, change them. Until then, they are not open to desire or preference.

    Mon, May 24 at 2:02 pm
  3. Wallyhood said,

    @E30: The police, all levels of government and virtually all citizens exercise discretion every day regarding which laws they enforce and obey. The speed limit is a small example. Marijuana possession is a larger one. The fact that there is graffiti all over the I-5 bridge that the city has not moved to remove with the speed with which they removed the hula-hooper sign is a more relevant example.

    The point is that when you focus just on “what is legal”, you cut off what can be a useful discussion, because it implies that “what is legal” is all the matters. It is not, as the behavior of the police and citizenry demonstrate every day.

    Mon, May 24 at 2:28 pm
  4. WaltZ said,

    @E30: I’m pretty sure laws are open to preference. There’s a couple that I prefer, and some that I don’t prefer. And there are some I desire, and some I don’t. I think you mean something else.

    Mon, May 24 at 9:03 pm
  5. Lisa said,

    Perhaps if the “artist” had left the original sign intact and created one similar it would have been allowed to stay. On the other hand, I just got slapped with a letter from the city telling me the constant tagging on my mural-ed retaining wall and carport will not be tolerated and if I don’t get rid of it, they will fine me $100 per day. I’m at a loss to know what to do. When I paint over it (which I am heartily sick of doing, btw), I’m just creating a new “canvas” for some other knucklehead tagger. Anyone have any ideas short of installing a motion sensor machine gun that only fires when it recognizes a tagger with a can of spray paint in the act?

    Mon, May 24 at 9:33 pm
  6. dfb said,

    Whether this is illegal is beside the point. The graffiti artist defaced someone else’s property. In this case, apparently the city of Seattle. The debate should be about respect not about whether it is art or not.
    In the end, there is very little that separates taggers and graffiti artists. Both feel a severe disregard for others, treat others’ property as if it were their own, and trash that other person’s property. The debates and arguments on both sides would be completely different if the graffiti artists chose to make their own signs and mockingly attached them below the city’s street signs or to other posts they erected on their own. One of my favorite pieces of guerrilla/graffiti art was a “fork” in the road in Pasadena, CA. See: That is both creative and does not truly deface the public’s property.  It has since been removed but the city will use that space for installation art. See:
    I’ll admit, the graffiti art is at least humorous (that’s why I took the claw photo), but it does deface the public’s property and also serves as a potential safety hazard as it modifies or hides the public safety message the sign is intended to convey. You may live there, but do not forget that folks like me still drive your local streets. Those signs were intended to serve as a warning. Taking away the warning made your streets less safe than had the warning been there in its intended state. Legally, scofflaws will probably and successfully defend themselves from punishment for violating laws identified by the signs for the sole reason that the sign was modified. Socially, it encourages others to act similarly.
    I think your comment about I-5 is well taken but may not clearly take into account why the Seattle street signs would be quickly corrected but I-5 graffiti would remain for long periods of time. Perhaps bureaucracy is to blame. In the suburbs of Los Angeles, where I live, my city is very active in getting rid of any sign of graffiti/tagging. The stuff is down a day or two. The I-10 freeway splits the city. Freeway signs, bridges and entry ways are the jurisdiction of Caltrans (aka State Dept of Transportation). The city refuses to cross that jurisdictional boundary even though it is in their city. For example, there is a foot bridge over the freeway a few blocks from my home. Its floor is covered from start to finish with graffiti. Children walk daily on the taggers’s messages as they cross the foot bridge to and from school. And yet, I get a gruff “Call Caltrans” when I report graffiti on the foot bridge and other Caltrans properties. Caltrans repaints the foot bridge once every two or three years and it is covered in graffiti a week later. Some of the freeway signs still have the same tags three years after I reported it. The only time I remember them removing graffiti was when it covered the message conveyed on the sign. I assume Washington is no different and that sort of jurisdictional morass is one possible reason why the city quickly removed graffiti but the I-5 graffiti remains. Then again, it does not sit well with any city bureaucrat or elected official when they are put on camera to defend why they allow graffiti to deface the city’s street signs. :-)
    BTW: I’d like to note that the creative commons copyright for the Stop Its the Claw photo requires attribution. Otherwise, it appears the photo was taken by you or one of your agents. A good example of attribution is found at:

    Mon, May 24 at 10:43 pm
  7. Chris W. said,

    @lisa — go here
    …and check out Janet’s 2nd response, which includes mention of a graffiti sheriff.   The Wallingford Neighborhood Office can probably put you in touch with him!

    Tue, May 25 at 11:05 am
  8. Lisa said,

    Chris W., thanks for the link! I’ll call them tomorrow.

    Tue, May 25 at 10:18 pm
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