Wallyhood Endorses Vandalism?

Folks, we need your help. Some time ago, we left some strong words over at the SeattleCrime blog expressing an opinion that we think most of our readers share: graffiti vandalism sucks.

Fast forward to earlier this week, when Patrick wrote a story for Wallyhood expressing appreciation for a bit of whimsical art here in Wallingford: Wallingford’s Best Traffic Circle.

The problem is, that artfully decorated traffic sign belonged to the city, and the anonymous artist who did the decorating didn’t have their permission. That would seem to make it vandalism. And Jonah over at the SeattleCrime blog has called us out on our hypocrisy:

So, Wallyhood, where’s the outrage? Why is tagging an offense worthy of corporal punishment. Why aren’t you all out in the streets with pitchforks and torches looking for the fiend who defaced this piece of publicly-owned property?

So, we turn to you, readers, for help in framing our response (if, in fact, you agree with us). This is what we’re thinking:

There is a difference between someone spraypainting their name on a wall and someone creating a bit of art, we’re just not sure we can express why.

Maybe it rests on the distinction between defacing and enhancing. We realize, though, that that implies the aesthetic equivalent of moral relativism (aesthetic relativism, our neighbor Christen called it); somehow it’s OK for us to approve one act of unauthorized alteration and disapprove of another simply because one appeals to us our artistic taste and the other does not.

The argument isn’t without precedent: no less than Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart declared “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.” In other words, a subjective judgment is sufficient to judge the worthiness and legality of a piece of art.

Why should we have to come up with some purely objective rule that could be applied dispassionately? We’re a community, with community standards. Shouldn’t the community get to decide what constitutes art within its confines?

Jonah has “pre-responded” to this argument by declaring “I don’t hate graffiti. I hate bad graffiti” as “painfully subjective”. But is subjectivity bad? Does it threaten a “tyranny of the majority”, in which “subversive art” could be suppressed?

We’re going to respond to Jonah on his blog, but we’ve got a jumble of thoughts and could use your help in formulating our response.

On a separate note, we’d like to extend our apologies to the artist: following Wallyhood’s article on Thursday, several news crews showed up, followed not long after by a city crew that removed the signs, which had remained, appreciated and unmolested, since last Fourth of July. RIP Art.

  1. Raffaella said,

    I agree with you, Wallyhood, and this makes me so sad that it got taken down.  Our neighborhood got a little bit less awesome.  That kind of stuff is everywhere on Capitol Hill, but no one writes about it and so it all stays up…so sad that celebrating a little piece of our neighborhood’s individuality turned into an internet flame war and removal of the art.

    Sat, May 15 at 8:10 am
  2. M Markel said,

    If you have to ask…  move away.

    Sat, May 15 at 8:37 am
  3. gleep said,

    To me, this is where the difference lies:
    Art, whether it’s good or bad, is about the viewer. Tagging is about the tagger, which makes it narcissistic piddling.

    Sat, May 15 at 9:04 am
  4. SeattleAlan said,

    @gleep – good distinction.

    Sat, May 15 at 9:42 am
  5. Anonymous said,

    It can’t be argued that it is a crime. It’s the law. It could be seen as art by some, but where do you draw the line? Your opinion? My opinion? These signs are there for a reason, which is a standard traffic warning sign of a road obstruction, not a warning sign of hoola-hoopers. Personally I see this sign as cute, but there’s a good reason  it’s illegal per city code. It could be seen as a distraction to drivers instead of watching out for little Johnny.
    On another note on these signs, what about city code that traffic circle plantings are to be maximum 2′ high? These signs and some crosswalks are being blocked by trees and shrubs that are too high. Where do you draw the line. I know if I hit somebody because I can’t see them because the traffic circle does not meet code, you and me as tax payers will pay the price. Literally.
    Let’s put our fighting efforts toward something worth while.

    Sat, May 15 at 10:05 am
  6. Luddite said,

    To me it makes sense not to artify city property, especially when what is in place is for public safety. There are plenty of other very clever and awesome ways to uniqueify this neighborhood on one’s own property or with permission. Those great signs might have been overlooked if they were placed below the required-by-Municipal-Code ones. Some of the best art, in my opinion, hides in plain sight.

    Sat, May 15 at 10:07 am
  7. Cody said,

    “The City” is an amorphous blob, and although the city is the owner of that, and all, traffic signs, there is no one person that can claim ownership.  Because of this, it is harder to see graffiti of this sort as anything other than a victimless crime.  When graffiti is placed on a business or home, there is a definite victim, and the fact that somebody vandalized their property seems reprehensible.  But in a situation like this traffic circle, where the graffiti went unnoticed by the owner for nearly a year, can you really call the owner a victim?  The reason it went undetected for as long as it did was largely in part because the people who could detect the “art” were either not offended or entertained by the addition to the sign, and the only reason it was finally detected by the city was because of this blog’s post praising the anonymous artist.

    So you could break it down and say that someone tagging the red wall of Moon Temple is no different then someone painting the traffic circle sign because, in essence, they are both people painting property that is not theirs without permission, but everyone knows that there is a difference.

    Sat, May 15 at 12:08 pm
  8. Chris W. said,

    I agree with gleep.  As for the comments Wallyhood left on the Seattle Crime blog, I agree with them totally.  I also love the traffic circle stickers.
    Here’s my quick take:  graffiti on private property is a blight & is rightly outlawed.  Graffiti ART on public structures, like under bridges, seems pretty ok to me.  As long as it’s something more than tagging.  Tagging should be and is punishable.
    But the traffic circle stickers — let ’em be!  Geez!  The traffic signs still do their job, the “distraction” is so small you pretty much have to be on foot to notice, and the city didn’t even know about it until this neighborhood praised it.
    Yes, hard & fast rules defining art vs. graffiti vs. tagging vs. defacing are hard to lock up.   But I do think there’s a vast difference between KIDD’s tagging & the traffic circle stickers.  They’re not the same thing at all.  And the neighborhood seems to enjoy the traffic circle rather than consider it a blight.
    Sometimes you have to apply a little common sense & do a case by case analysis… and if Jonah is calling Wallyhood (Jordan) a hypocrite I think that’s a shame.  Perhaps Jonah needs a vacation to appreciate some art & to think less about crime for a few days.

    Sat, May 15 at 3:38 pm
  9. Cathy said,

    Ijust don’t think it’s ok to mark on any sign- whether it’s artful or not.

    What does everyoen think of the ladybug traffic circle below 50th on Burke– that big ladybug which covers the entire intersection?

    Sat, May 15 at 5:54 pm
  10. Chris W. said,

    @Cathy. Just saw it today for the first time.  Rumor has it that the city did that.

    Sat, May 15 at 6:34 pm
  11. Anonymous said,

    @Cathy & Chris – the ladybug is city approved but also very controversial up in that neck of the woods.  Tread softly!

    Sat, May 15 at 6:48 pm
  12. Flash said,

    If I stop and think about it, it is art. To further occlude the issue I suggest you google Banksey.

    Sat, May 15 at 7:25 pm
  13. Kara C said,

    the ladybug is public art done by the neighbors, assisted by a city grant – see the P-I for the story a few years ago.
    i guess this is what can happen when anything is publicized… dang it!  i just read the story w/ the pics, and intended to go over to see tonight.  HEY, CITY!  do you not have better things to do with the little budget you have??  i am outraged that the city would come in to “fix” these wonderful signs, that hardly anyone ever saw!  i want an answer from the city.  you who insisted you couldn’t afford a few porta-potties for last year’s Fourth of July, and made WE the businesses donate money for!!

    Sat, May 15 at 8:52 pm
  14. Sandy said,

    But the city can throw old tires into an open field, downtown, and call it ART!
    This is crap. Someone should have stopped them from taking “Art” down, when the powers that be put the B.S. they call art, and pay millions for it, up! Our tax dollars at work : ((

    Sat, May 15 at 10:03 pm
  15. Sandy said,

    BTW, I love the lady bug!!! Stop talking about it, or they will ruin that, too!!!

    Sat, May 15 at 10:06 pm
  16. Ethan said,

    I agree with Gleep’s distinction for what is right or wrong , but I don’t think Wallyhood needs to worry about that.  You’re not representing the government deciding who should be punished for this; you’re just expressing your opinions.
    So if you like or dislike something, feel free to say so!

    Sat, May 15 at 11:03 pm
  17. Chris W. said,

    Nice point, Kara.   Have you heard anything about porta-potties for this year?  Drop Wallyhood a note if you have, and I’ll be happy to follow up with a blog post here…

    Sun, May 16 at 9:10 am
  18. Anne Frances Kelly said,

    As someone who works in the general community has been had their place of work hit by taggers…hmmm…it defaces private property, is expensive to remove, paint over and is a target for further tagging…that all being said: in my opinion, it would be nice to have a fine that fits the crime as well as specified places for people to tag if that is what they are wanting to do. Insofar as tagging being art, well I just plain disagree. I work at a beautiful brick church in the neighborhood and we have been hit several times, spray paint does not come off brick very well. It is ugly and scars the building visually.  Our building is on private property so not only are people defacing the building, they are tresspassing… 

    Doodling on public property while it may be “cute”, is public property and belongs to the public not the artist that is creating the “art.”  At the risk of sounding like a crabby old lady this is my two cents worth.

    Sun, May 16 at 10:23 am
  19. srm said,

    Why should we have to come up with some purely objective rule that could be applied dispassionately? We’re a community, with community standards. Shouldn’t the community get to decide what constitutes art within its confines?
    Just saying: This, not the part about distinguishing between “defacing” and “enhancing”, is relativism.  You’re saying here that aesthetic standards should be measured relative to some other standard – in this case, a community standard or consensus.  And there’s really no more reason a community should decide what has aesthetic value for all than an individual should decide.  Just be honest and say you like the one and don’t like the other, and don’t hold anyone else to your aesthetic standard.  Let the law, not the aesthetics police, tackle graffiti.

    Sun, May 16 at 2:28 pm
  20. cls said,

    Why is consistency important here? Everyone who reads this blog is fully capable of making their own distinction between art and vandalism and between the value of artistic freedom beyond the boundary of the law vs. the value of those laws to the community.  But, for what it’s worth, if it’s approved by the government, it’s probably not art (although there are always exceptions – the W.P.A. produced some great art). If it’s not approved by the government it might not be art, but it’s at least a different opinion. And we are all entitled to one even if the mode of expression is detrimental to the community.
    I would always take a world that allows for art and suffers from vandalism over one in which both are restricted based on some sort of consistent and objective standard. The price of any individual freedom (e.g. artistic expression) is that the range of ways it is used will both benefit and detract from the community as a whole (in the form of “approved art”, “unapproved art” or “dreck”), and that the limits of freedom are never defined by a government, they are always defined by individuals.
    Oh – and returning to the original question: Jonah doesn’t deserve a response – not even in the form of a soul-searching blog post and subsequent commentary. There is nothing inappropriate about valuing one aesthetic choice over another, and there is nothing immoral in valuing artistic expression that colors outside the lines. Society needs laws, but let’s not confuse them with right, wrong or aesthetics. The whole premise of his challenge is absurd.

    Sun, May 16 at 5:12 pm
  21. Harvey said,

    I still love “Stop for me, it’s the Claw”.

    Sun, May 16 at 5:12 pm
  22. Anonymous said,

    Hi – I don’t live in Wallyhood but I am intrigued by the issue at hand. It’s a tough call for sure.  It almost seems like Jonus has a vendetta against the good people of Wallyhood. I would think there would be a higher priority placed on stopping crimes such as rape, murder & sex-trafficking as opposed to spending the time and money on removing “graffiti” that is actually bringing a good feeling to and about the area.  Good luck Wallyhood. And to the artist – keep on keepin’ on!  I know you are making your mark in more GOOD ways than one! 

    Sun, May 16 at 10:01 pm
  23. Sean said,

    Hey Jordan,
    As I see it, graffiti is like crashing a private party without an invite. If you’re going to do it, you have to bring your most charming, charismatic stuff and convince the hosts that the party is better with you there. If you’re just a douchebag or a leach, however, then the hosts rightfully kick you out, with the assistance of law enforcement if necessary.
    Sadly, 99.9% of graffiti falls into the douchebag category. These traffic signs were a welcome exception.

    Sun, May 16 at 10:46 pm
  24. Latonamom said,

    I say if it makes me smile it’s art.  And is welcome.

    Sun, May 16 at 11:04 pm
  25. Anonymous said,

    I think you can see from a piece of graffiti whether the intent was to deface or whether it was to enhance (art).   As a community (I mean laws reflect the community will — although maybe not the local community will), we decide that graffiti is illegal and that means both defacing and artful graffiti.  I think you can decide that all graffiti is illegal while still allowing different personal reactions to particular graffiti.  That personal reaction determines whether graffiti gets complained about and whether it gets taken down.  So in Capitol Hill, artful graffiti stays up while in other neighborhoods it doesn’t.  I don’t that’s hypocritical personally, but  other people feel that if you agree that something should be “illegal” then you must also believe that it is a) wrong and b) must be stopped/reported.   I think both are understandable views but that the two camps are unlikely to be able to agree.

    Mon, May 17 at 8:05 am
  26. Forrest said,

    Going back to the original post, which opened up the discussion to readers I’d hardly say it was “endorsing vandalism”. The best art always pushes the envelope, or it would just be blasé. While it would be nice to beautify every intersection legitimately, a la the ladybug… it would take a lot of time/$. Also, the edginess would be lost. The “stripper” would never make it, for one.
    In Portland, the bike lane markers are adorned as characters. This is officially done, and though it probably violates the MUTCD to some degree, the community has decided that art is an important part of their daily lives and gives the public credit for being able to appreciate creativity and read signs. I think we could do something similar here.

    Mon, May 17 at 8:32 am
  27. Xavier said,

    I agree with Gleep and Sean. If it’s a selfish piece of work then it clearly falls into the category of vandalism. It can be selfish in two ways: 1) If it’s placed on property without permission, 2) If it’s of such quality that it only appeals to the artist/vandal himself. So, tagging 100% and graffiti 99% fall into this category.
    That would mean a piece of work becomes art when something about it transcends just the selfish appeal to the artist. If a piece of work has an allure that gives something back to the general community, whether it be humor or beauty or thoughtfulness, then it becomes art. When it appeals to the greater community and is placed on public property, then the community implicitly gives permission for it to stay.
    But, the kicker is the lowest common denominator. That is to say the city already has an “art panel” for pieces like this sign art. The city wont generally touch these kinds of pieces unless there is an obvious safety issue OR if someone complains. So it only takes one offended community member to ‘ruin’ it for the whole community. That is what happened to the signs in this case.

    Mon, May 17 at 10:10 am
  28. Steve B. said,

    Now if someone will write a piece on the large stickers on the eastern poles at 45th & Meridian.  Apparently the city does not remove stickers. (I called.)  Since they’re vinyl it will take heat to get them off.  Hair dryers work good on automotive decals.

    Mon, May 17 at 2:16 pm
  29. srm said,

    Xavier: It’s all well and good to come up with criteria as to why you think something is art or vandalism, but why should anyone else accept that criteria?  You claim that a “selfish piece of work” (however that plays out in the real world) is just vandalism, whereas something that “transcends just the selfish appeal to the artist” (whatever that means) and “has an allure that gives something back to the community” (however that works) is art.  Why?  And what are you really including and excluding there?  I can think of plenty of modernist and postmodernist (and medieval, for that matter) art that consists primarily of visual in-jokes that it’s hard for anyone but the artist and his/her in-group to get anything out of, but I wouldn’t say they’re not art because of this.

    Mon, May 17 at 3:22 pm
  30. K said,

    I have seen other signs like this.  That haven’t been taken down.  If you look.  Just don’t waste the city’s time by telling them where they are.  :)

    Tue, May 18 at 7:54 pm
  31. Kat said,

    I think it all has to do with opinion, which isn’t always fair. A lot of people don’t seem to like Henry’s murals, but they still go up AND hes got permission from the land owner to do it too. Some people may think this is cute, but in 5 years when its peeling and looks like crap, is the original artist going to come back and clean it up? Nope! Now us tax payers are going to have to foot the bill for workers to come out, clean it up or possibly replace the sign. Total waste. I don’ t think this looks bad, but its the long run effect of it.

    Wed, May 19 at 5:37 pm
  32. Xavier said,

    srm:  The only reason anyone should accept any criteria is because it’s true. I’m just the messenger, don’t confuse me with the message. If you have a “better” truth, than out with it.
    You do bring up good point about “art that consists primarily of visual in-jokes that it’s hard for anyone but the artist and his/her in-group”.  What you’re talking about (intentionally or not) is graffiti. So, yes, in the purely theoretical sense, the graffiti artist and even the tagger has something to give to a very small group of people. So I will admit that graffiti and tagging has the potential to be art.  So, under the “selfish vs. selfless” criteria in the context of the piece itself, independent of placement, it is art.
    But, as you say, “however that plays out in the real world” is in shades of gray and the overall balance. Graffiti/taggers selfishly choose to place their stuff on private or community property. How does graffiti differ from the “hula hoop” stickers on the signs? In the “real world” it plays out in the balance of what the piece takes away vs. what it gives back. The little black stickers take nearly nothing, they’re easily ignored, yet many people enjoy them greatly because they’re funny and thoughtful.
    On the other hand, even a small tag, say for example written on the same sign as the hula sticker, although taking up the same amount of visual space, gives very little back. The tag is an unintelligible scribble to most of the community. The only thing it represents is a reminder of street gangs and the fact their community has members that have no regard for their own community. That takes away an awful lot. And we’re not even talking about the 12 foot high tags and graffiti. It doesn’t matter how satisfied the small group of taggers are, they take away so much from everyone else. Overall there’s nothing redeeming. In this real world context, it isn’t art, it’s vandalism.
    Now if graffiti artists would just place their works on canvas, they would have a fighting chance at legitimacy.

    Thu, May 20 at 11:26 am
  33. srm said,

    Xavier: When I asked why anyone should accept your criteria, I was asking for reasons.  “It’s true” doesn’t amount to a very good reason.  Suppose I said, “Obama is Saddam Hussein in disguise! He had plastic surgery so no one could tell, but it’s really true!” and, when you reasonably asked “why should I believe that?”, I responded, “it’s true.  I’m just the messenger, don’t confuse me with the message. If you have a ‘better’ truth, then out with it.”  Of course, that scenario is silly, but that’s exactly the form of argument you’re making.  Unless you give reasons for believing that the difference between graffiti and art is that graffiti is selfish and art is not, your argument is no better than my hypothetical one.
    But what you say later is much more interesting: “The tag is an unintelligible scribble to most of the community. … It doesn’t matter how satisfied the small group of taggers are, they take away so much from everyone else.” implies, once again, a community standard for what is art and what is graffiti (with art valued and graffiti devalued).  If you really want to accept that as the standard, that’s fine.  However, if you went out and took a vote, and it turned out that your idea of what is (good) art and what is (bad) graffiti was precisely opposite that of your community, and the stuff you labeled “nothing redeeming”, “selfish”, etc., was considered good public art, while your hula hoop stickers were devalued, would you be comfortable adapting to that standard of art?

    Sat, May 22 at 1:30 pm
  34. No Tags Here said,

    Tagging used to be a problem in my neighborhood.  We caught two taggers and broke two fingers on each of them (dislocated the knuckle actually) as well as sprayed their faces with their own paint.

    They have not been back.

    Mon, May 24 at 12:48 pm
  35. Xavier said,

    I did give reasons and you quoted them. To me the meaning of selfish is pretty clear. Maybe what you’re asking for is examples and I gave examples in the 2nd response.
    For your Obama example I wouldn’t ask “why should I believe that?” because the reasoning is obvious: Obama is carrying out an evil agenda, we’re being tricked. Does anyone need to ask: “Really, how so?”
    For me to ask ‘why should I believe?’ the Obama thing doesn’t advance a discussion, it’s redundant. Instead I’d shoot the theory down with any number of reasons (for example, “how did they make Saddam’s wide skull narrow like Obama’s?) and I’d give a “better truth” such as: “Conservatives use fear and dishonesty to try to sway gullible voters under their control”. THEN, you could come in give reasons to defend the plastic surgery theory. That would be a discussion.
    I think the confusion in the original discussion about what is art vs. graffiti is due to a bad question. The original question should be worded: “What kind of illegally placed art should be allowed to stay in a public setting?” Because graffiti, under my own criteria of selflessness vs. selfish, does it give back?, is it appreciated?: Yes, it is appreciated by a small group of people, it is art.
    Whether art should stay, is a separate question. The legal answer is no because under our legal system the criteria is clear. Under the pseudo-legality of what should the city choose to spend time and money enforcing, and using my own criteria, the answer is No for graffiti, Yes for hula sticker. On balance and in the context of public art placed illegally, graffiti takes from the community more than it gives back. Most people would clearly vote against it.
    These are two different questions, however.

    Mon, May 24 at 1:11 pm
  36. Ron said,

    This is an interesting topic that does not have to be all that complicated. Opinions vary…art/vandelism…adds/devalues  the neighborhood type arguments are all too subjective to have any meaning in the real world. The criteria need not be left to such debates which can never be satisfactorily settled. IMHO the criteria should be “if you OWN it, make it as artsy as you like. If you do not OWN it then it is a crime” And lest this devolve into another debate about what consititutes ownership in the public square I would say again, pretty simple. If you have the legal right to sell something…you own it…if you do not then you don’t. Just because you as an individual or an entire neighbohood think something is ART does not make it so…save it for your own space and spare the rest of us your narcisism.

    Sat, May 29 at 11:51 am
Read previous post:
What’s happening in Wallingford this weekend?

Hoping to get outside and enjoy the sunshine this weekend? Here's a few suggestions on things to do in your...