Ithaca Times

Art of vandalism: Destruction of property — not art — increasing in Ithaca

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Posted: Wednesday, August 24, 2011 12:00 am

When you log into Facebook the first thing you do is look at what is written on your "wall." It is a space that all of your "friends" can see, but it is also a space that the friends of your friends can see. It is, in many respects, a public wall on which you are constantly establishing and then reinforcing your identity and your perspective. Of course, on Facebook, you don't have to buy spray paint cans, scope out a site to determine a period when no one is much paying attention to it, and then mark it up with your equivalent of "Kilroy was here."

Graffiti has lately become a much more noticeable part of the built landscape in Ithaca. Several weeks ago Eric Bopp contacted this newspaper to tell us that the West Hill Civic Association had hired local artist"> Sean Chilson to decorate the walls of a utility structure in the neighborhood.

"The NYSEG gas [pumping] station at Routes 79 and 13A has been covered with graffiti for a year," Bopp said. "I called NYSEG and asked them to clean it up, and they said with the background of that location, it would just get tagged again."

Several months ago abandoned building across Fulton Street from GreenStar Cooperative Market became the canvas for a political comment about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. The building that houses the Ithaca Times recently sported a scrawled demand (freshly painted over this week) that the writer be the subject of an article. Political inscriptions like this are scattered thinly through the thickening tangle of initials and drug use references.

Christine Leuenberger is senior lecturer in the Department of Science and Technology Studies at Cornell. She just returned from her most recent of several trips to the Israel and Palestine, where she is studying the social consequences of building the "West Bank barrier." The Israeli government is building the structure for security purposes. It was begun in 2000 and will ultimately be 460 miles long. Much of it consists of a high fence bounded by a wide no-man's land of barbed wire. About 10 percent of its length consists of 26-foot high concrete wall, which has been heavily covered in graffiti in many places, by both Israelis and Palestinians.

"Graffiti has always played a huge role there," said Leuenberger. "It is a prominent way of communicating political messages for the Palestinians, who are living under censorship by the Israeli government."

Leuenberger sees three different conversations going on in West Bank barrier graffiti. Palestinians are communicating with other Palestinians. Some Israelis are demonstrating solidarity with the Palestinian cause, and others are supporting the Zionist mission. Finally, international artists are using the wall to put up ironic images in an attempt make the wall seem absurd.

Banksy, a British graffitist known for his stenciled images that convey political messages through irony and absurdist humor, drew a window on the West Bank barrier, flanked by two chairs. In the window he drew a pastoral European landscape.

Leuenberger said that this attempt to make the wall seem ridiculous was not appreciated by the Palestinians. When she went to visit it on her most recent trip she saw that Banksy's image had been the victim of "culture jamming," the alteration of the meaning of an image by another artist. A local artist had painted over the bucolic landscape so that now the viewer looked through the "window" and saw ... a wall.

The sociologist travels to the West Bank each summer, during semester breaks, and for shorter trips during the school year. This makes for a clear-eyed view of the graffiti in an upstate college town where there hasn't been an armed conflict since the 18th century.

"I have the sense that these kids [in Ithaca] are just imitating what they see done elsewhere," said Leuenberger. "I don't get the sense that there is a community of street artists here, just that occasional high school or college student that scribbles on the wall. This graffiti is not part of a landscape of resistance. In Ithaca there are other ways of joining a political resistance that are more effective."

Gary Bercow is the art teacher at the Lehman Alternative Community School (LACS). He teaches a course called "Rebel Art" and has taught his students about graffiti in several of his classes over the years.

"Graffiti can be a part of [rebel art]," he said. "It is socially-related art that stands out, street art, stenciling, postering, anything that tries to make a difference."

Bercow introduces his students to the history of graffiti. It has had many incarnations over the centuries. Many adults now entering middle age are likely to remember the flowering of graffiti in urban settings in the late 1970s and through the 1980s that accompanied the genesis and growth of hip hop culture. Along with DJing, MCing ("rapping"), and break-dancing, graffiti writing was, according to Afrika Bambaataa, one of the four pillars of hip hop.

This wave of graffiti writing started in the South Bronx and spread to Brooklyn. Bubble letters gave way to the "wildstyle" of cryptic interlocking letters. Each tag was generally a combination of someone's "street name" and their street number, a badge of identity. It was a form of self-expression that was being "thrown up" entirely on public or private property.

Taggers took to breaking into rail yards and painting subway cars stored overnight. By morning, the entire side of a car would be covered in a maze of color and line. It could be breathtakingly beautiful, but you also couldn't see out of the windows anymore.

"We explore [historical] fonts and type faces to create our own," said Bercow. "Then we pull them into Photoshop. They learn how hard it is to do something nice.

"It's bold, bright, and attractive," he added. "Students are interested because of the musical base [in hip hop]. It is the artwork of rebellion and youth, a stepping way from the norm."

Bercow tells his students about the political purpose of graffiti, but his message is framed in terms of defying cultural conventions, not throwing off an oppressive political regime.

"We talk about it," he said, "about the need to get out and do something different from the normal life of shopping, working and going to school."

He stresses that he does not encourage his LACS students to emulate the young taggers of the South Bronx or the West Bank.

"There is a difference between creating something and violating something," Bercow said. "I'm clear about that. I talk about people's rights and the legalities. We talk about outlets, and how I can help them find them.

"I have had kids [in school] with spray cans or paint markers in their backpacks," he added. "I am able to talk to them about appropriate places and permission. It doesn't mean they listen, but I try."

There is actually a "graffiti room" in LACS that has been there for many years.

"People are free to do anything, within certain rules," Bercow said, "no language, no negativity toward others, and you have to stay in the room."

The entry room has double doors at each end.

"If people start to blow it," said the art teacher, "we shut it down and paint it over."

Another graffiti room has also been added in the new wing of the school.

West Hill neighborhood activist Bopp, who is leading the effort to beautify the NYSEG pumping station, noted that the LACS bandshell and many of the exterior walls of the school were marred by graffiti.

"It's clear from how they're tagged that they are not our students," said Bercow. "Most of my kids are honest. They will talk to me about tags, and will know who it is, and they're [angry] that it's there."

He said that the graffiti at the school began to appear last May, and the police were called.

Ithaca Police Chief Ed Vallely is not a fan of graffiti.

"Personally, I'm offended by it," he said. "Some of it is artistic, but some of it is just nonsense."

The chief said that since June 2010 six people have been arrested in Ithaca for making graffiti.

"Six is a pretty fair number," Vallely said, "given the nature of the crime. It's not exactly noisy, and it's pretty hard to find someone doing it. When citizens report someone in the act of doing it, then it is the easiest for us to catch them."

Article 145, Section 60 of the New York State penal law is called "Making Graffiti." It is unambiguous in its attitude.

"The term ‘graffiti' shall mean the etching, painting, covering, drawing upon or otherwise placing of a mark upon public or private property with intent to damage such property," the law states. "No person shall make graffiti of any type on any building, public or private, or any other property real or personal owned by any person, firm or corporation or any public agency or instrumentality, without the express permission of the owner or operator of said property."

The offense is a Class A misdemeanor. New York State penal law states that the courts can impose a sentence of up to one year of jail time. This also means that they can impose much less, including no jail time. Vallely said that the severity of the punishment is generally based on the dollar amount of the damage.

"We use a high-pressure wash first," said Rick Searles, the parking operations supervisor for the City of Ithaca, describing how he and his crews remove graffiti from public property. "Then we try some environmentally friendly chemicals. Then we make a concrete slurry that we put on the wall with a roller like paint."

He said that the difficulty of repairing a graffiti-marked wall depends on what the surface is made of. He said that concrete and brick are difficult to clean, but marble monuments are the worst.

While Vallely was not aware of an increase in the frequency of graffiti in downtown Ithaca - there has not been a noticeable upsurge in arrests or complaints - Searles is concerned.

"For the last four or five years we've had a problem, but the recent increase started a couple months ago," he said. "We have no staff dedicated to removal. We used to, but we've had funding cuts. Now, when we're not busy with something else, we go around and take care of it."

Searles, an employee of the city public works department, is in charge of maintaining all the public property on the Commons and the streets immediately adjacent to it, as well as the Seneca and Green Street parking garages.

"Different paints are used by different people," he said. "And they take pictures [of the tags] to identify the individuals who are doing the tagging."

Searles sees a slight surge in activity in the fall, coincident with the return of the college students to town. "College students like to do stencils," he said. "We were seeing them in the garages, but then it just stopped."

According to Searles, when people are caught making graffiti and then go before a judge, they are often assigned community service as a punishment.

"I'd like the judge to send them to me for community service," he said. "But they get a choice of where they want to work, and they don't choose me because they know they'll be cleaning off graffiti."

Searles said that New Roots Charter School students were recently apprehended for marking up the Green Street parking garage. Vallely was not aware of any New Roots students having been arrested.

The Ithaca Times contacted Todd Ayoung, the artist-in-residence at New Roots, and although initially receptive to an interview, Ayoung ultimately declined.

"Although I have discussed graffiti art strictly in an art historical context in my classroom, especially as it was practiced in NYC in the 1970's when I lived there," he wrote in an e-mail, "the promotion of graffiti today as a practice is not part of our art curriculum."

"In Ithaca there are so many ways to express resistance to the issues that graffiti is not the first thing that comes to mind," said Leuenberger. "When there are lots of institutional ways of resisting, graffiti doesn't really have the same importance."

She contrasted the Western setting with the Middle East.

"During the first intifada [an uprising from 1987 to 1993 during which 1,100 Palestinians were killed]," she said, "there was no legal process. The only way that Palestinians had to communicate was to scribble on the walls."

Leuenberger said that the West Bank barrier has its fair share of non-political tagging, but there is less of it than she sees in Ithaca and during her earlier research in Germany during the last years of the Berlin Wall, which was heavily marked up on its western side.

"There is quite a bit of tagging on the West Bank," she said, "although there is less near Abu Dis."

Abu Dis is a portion of the barrier that is often visited by Western tourists. Graffiti in that area is also frequently written in English, said Neuenberger.

The Cornell researcher said that in Palestine graffiti is the voice of a group identity, not the individual one represented by the tags and "throw ups" seen in western Europe and Ithaca.

"They are reclaiming public space for the Palestinian collective," the sociologist said, "because it is so dominated by the Israeli military."

"Graffiti is a form of ‘bottom up' resistance,'" added Leuenberger. "It is really ineffective as a form of resistance, because it's really not very threatening."

She said that this was one reason why the West Bank graffiti was often not even removed.

"But because some parts of the barrier are a tourist attraction," she said, "the graffiti comes into conflict with the tourism the NGOs bring there."

At Abu Dis the graffiti is regularly whitewashed.

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