After looking at the longest list of credentials of one person I’ve ever seen—Yale, University Of Cambridge, Stanford Law, Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor of City Journal, recipient of 2005 Bradley Prize for Outstanding Intellectual Achievement, etc, etc—I came to the conclusion that approaching Heather Mac Donald’s fortified intellect would be the equivalent of challenging the IBM Chess Terminator: cold, calculating, and absent a pulse. I find it hard to believe that someone of such high stature would spend so much energy on something that seems trivial in comparison to her passion for deportation and torture. Yet she seems really upset at the idea of a museum honoring over forty years of development in Graffiti Art.
In her lengthy article “Radical Graffiti Chic,” she refers to artists as “vandal-anarchist wannabes” and attempts to highlight their hypocrisy. She names me personally in the article, stating that I am quick to sell out to any corporate sponsor: “Saber, who declares in an interview with the graffiti journal Arrested Motion that ‘there is no room for empathy when there is a motive for profit,’ has sold his designs to Levi’s, Hyundai, and Harley-Davidson.”
In trying to paint me as a hypocrite for capitalizing on my intellectual property, Heather does not take into account that I support my family through my art. I have painted everything from sets to faux finishing to gold leafing to put food on the table or to pay for health care bills, since insurance companies have refused to cover me due to a pre-existing condition (epilepsy). Heather, who is paid to write articles, should understand the process of making money for one’s creative output, and that this is not what I was referring to in the Arrested Motion quote. I was referring to health insurance companies taking away accessible facilities from sick people in order to save a buck at the expense of the patient’s life. To compare my art to the health insurance companies is ludicrous.
Global, entrepreneurial, and interconnected, the Graffiti Art movement has created its own market and fueled many more. Hollywood and music videos have utilized graffiti style since the 1980s. It should come as no surprise that corporations have aped graffiti imagery and tactics too. After all, the visual content created by this art movement drives millions of hits in web traffic and makes hundreds of millions of dollars in streetwear clothing, publishing, photography, artist materials and spray paint. There is no need to “sell out” when you are busy building. We are an industry, run from the street rather than a boardroom.
Heather Mac Donald pontificates on an array of topics from the safe, sterile vantage point of an elitist, watching life through the eyes of a godless conservative. This verbal assassin is quick to pass judgment on an art movement that she has little understanding of.
Heather seems to view Graffiti Art as the culprit of the degradation of society, incapable or unwilling to recognize that graffiti tagging is a symptom of a bigger problem. The economic consequences of conservative policy makers, the failed War on Drugs, and the expansion of the private prison industry has left people with a sense of hopelessness. In my lifetime, parts of our country have turned into a wasteland of both private and public space. For many youths, Graffiti Art filled a void created by billions of dollars in education cuts. Arts programs go beyond the typical education structure of standardized testing and help young people to express themselves. If you eliminate that opportunity then that energy has to go elsewhere. And I’m sorry, but a two-dollar watercolor set from Walmart is not the answer. That ignorant statement is equivalent to telling kids interested in science to get Poprocks and soda to mix the two. Why not make use of dilapidated, neglected space? Why not make use of a dirty, empty lot or an abandoned train tunnel? For many young artists, Graffiti Art is an environment of aggressive competition to create (a name, a style, a masterpiece), not destroy. Why is it OK for the ad industry to assault urban landscapes with alcohol advertisements while a young person gets a felony for putting a sticker on a lamppost? Why is it OK to invest billions on the incarceration an entire generation in the private prison system yet its taboo to invest in the arts?
Heather seems to think that this art movement is based solely in the ghettos and for the glorification of illegal activity. My personal mission was never based on the “thrill” alone but on the development of an abstract art form. Many critics are under the impression that if it looks like a wild, stylized graffiti piece, then it must have been painted illegally. These complex murals often take days to complete. I get permission and have personally donated hundreds of hours in painting beautiful works in local neighborhoods. These murals stay clean and serve as graffiti abatement in spaces that are habitually tagged. Trust me, if it looks elaborate, then chances are that mural was painted with the explicit permission of the property owner.
One week before the opening of MOCA’s Art In the Streets, Graffiti Solutions, a business contracted by L.A. County, broke into private property and painted over a commissioned mural painted by several artists featured in the show. The building owner and locals alike were in an uproar. The community came together and demanded an explanation. The company had to come back the next day and pressure-wash the grey paint off the mural surface and offered to pay for the artists to repair the damage caused. I believe the city is paying private companies to censure art at the taxpayers’ expense. These companies even use attractive graffiti to promote their business. I wonder if Heather agrees with the city’s tactics? Isn’t this, not only a waste of tax money but government overstepping into the rights of private property owners as well?
The claim that L.A. County spends $30 million a year on graffiti removal is a complete fabrication and anyone who wants to be fiscally responsible should look into how that money was spent. Those numbers are inflated for political gain and change with every new press release. In 2009, the City of Los Angeles used $3.4 million of Federal Stimulus Funds to remove graffiti from the L.A. River. They said they needed that much money for hazardous-material crews to pressure wash the paint off the surface, and dam the river to collect the paint chips so none of it would end up in the water run off. Instead, they held a ribbon cutting ceremony that included the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, a pair of City council members, and the L.A. Sheriff’s department to take turns spraying white paint on the surface. Those funds should have gone to schools and rebuilding our dilapidated infrastructure, instead they hired a contractor to paint thirty miles of the L.A. River white. Adding thousands of gallons of white paint to the concrete slopes, they created an enormous, newly primed canvas. When asked how spending this money would stop people from hitting the walls again, the sheriff said, “Nothing. We’ll just give them felonies.”
It starts when a kid tags on a pole. Detectives and the police hunt down a teenager with no previous criminal record. They raid his house using SWAT tactics with the local news trailing behind them. The politician has a friendly win and prison gets another body. It costs $50,000 a year to house an inmate at the taxpayer’s expense while private prisons reap rewards for shareholders. This country spends $68 billion a year on corrections, 300 percent more than 25 years ago. These extreme measures are a waste of money and are not leading to solutions. The continuous prosecution has only helped create martyrs for the cause. I think a better solution would be to allocate a percentage of the funds used to incarcerate people and put that money towards job training programs and community improvements.
Heather shows a limited understanding of what is actually happening on the street. In searching for an extreme view of the toxicity of tagging, she interviewed people at Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles gang intervention outreach program. Sadly, a tragic story isn’t difficult to find there. If she had dug deeper she would have found that for some, graffiti is considered an alternative route away from the dead-end gang life. I doubt she was willing to stick around at Homeboy Industries long enough to find anything beyond the quotes she plucked. I’m sure none of the Homeboys would even speak to her if they knew her extreme positions on immigration.
Chicano letterforms have certainly been influential artistically (particularly in Los Angeles), but Graffiti Art has nothing to do with the territorial marking and violence of gangs. However, since the LAPD would like you to think otherwise, they came up with the derogatory term “tag-banger” to conflate the two. I don’t believe in turning my back on those kids, and I have met plenty of them that would look you straight in the eye and tell you that Graffiti Art saved their life.
“To be sure, some graffiti murals are visually striking, showing an intuitive understanding of graphic design (though their representational iconography is usually pure adolescent male wish-fulfillment, featuring drug paraphernalia, cartoon characters, T&A, space guns, and alien invaders). In theory, it might be possible to mount a show that acknowledged the occasionally compelling formal elements of wall painting without legitimating a crime. Such an exhibit would include only authorized murals, whether past or present, and would unequivocally condemn taking someone else’s property without permission. No graffiti propaganda has ever abided by such limits; the MOCA show will not, either.”
In the quote above Heather gives Graffiti Art a sprinkling of merit. But her assumption that this skill is purely intuitive reveals how little she understands. Far from “infantile solipsism,” the skills of artists in a crew are developed through mentoring. I am a strong believer in the idea that you get out of life what you put into it. I want to be recognized as an artist based on the merit of my art. When I was younger I wasn’t able to grasp the consequences of every action. While I would never take back any of my experiences, I feel I have learned important lessons over time. Ultimately, Graffiti Art has led me to a positive place. I believe that most of the artists in MOCA’s Art In The Streets have contributed to its development with hard work and artistic integrity. The grossly exaggerated cry of “increased vandalism” during the show never materialized and the surrounding businesses are reaping the financial benefits of the throngs of people attending the museum to see the show, which is set to break museum attendance records.
Heather, your battle cry is too late. The Art In The Streets show at MOCA is a huge success. The people have spoken. The museum has been packed since day one and it is clear this is only the beginning. In the future, I will be celebrating with my peers in the great halls of museums worldwide while you will be hunched over your computer concocting your next witches’ brew.
“In atmosphere of liberty, artists and patrons are free to think the unthinkable and create the audacious; they are free to make both horrendous mistakes and glorious celebrations.” (Ronald Reagan – Farewell Address, Jan. 1989)