Chuck Smart


Art or nuisance? Or Both?
Image Credit: Courtesy Photos/Kitsap Graffiti

Double-edged nozzle: the art of vandalism

by Bill Mickelson
North Kitsap Herald
Jul 23, 2008 at 11:00AM updated Jul 24, 2008 at 10:21AM

What's up delves into the destructive, inspirational and rebellious art of graffiti.

It's one of the most prevalent art forms around. It's nearly omnipresent.

It has appeared throughout the annuals history, throughout societies, throughout generations, on building sides and bus stops, in alley ways and along avenues, under the bridge and on the overpass.

It's in the inner cities and in small towns across the nation. It travels cross country on train cars.

Likewise, graffiti is here in Kitsap. But it traverses the county through individual's feelings of inspiration, destruction and revolt.

There's been more than 1,000 Kitsap tags documented and posted on the web by a guy who says he had been into the graffiti scene for years and just recently started taking pictures. He, who wishes to remain anonymous, started seeking out Kitsap graffiti, to post online and it became somewhat of an addiction.

"I had no idea how much there actually was until I made it a point to go out and look for it," he said. "I'd just drive on every road with my eyes peeled, hoping I'd see more ... then I got the idea to make a MySpace account."

He didn't want the identity of the MySpace page anywhere above the underground, let alone his name, so let's call him KG.

KG's wishes for anonymity in a mass-distributed community newspaper -- given the fear of guilt by association -- are fairly indicative of, and practically necessary in, the culture of the art of vandalism. But KG's desire to document the county's artistic crime, and promote the artists thereof, is also illustrative of said culture's impact on society.

Graffiti is a bit like 21st century poetry. Self expression in spray paint.

Take, for a blatant example, a tattered and wheel-scratched tag at the Kingston Skate Park. Written in gold letters over a black background on a large inverted box is a monumental-like transcription of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech.

The sight of it is powerful and moving.

That same patch of concrete at the county-owned park also contains one-line inspirational phrases and other randomness written in freehand graffiti, along with iconic stencils, taggers' logos and doodle creatures scattered in paint throughout.

When they first started marking up the place, resident writers -- or taggers, as graffiti writers are sometimes known -- were met with expected resistance from county authorities, but the accused contested that graffiti was more a form of self expression than public nuisance. Authorities conceded a bit to the art's role in the park's culture and built a dedicated wall for writing, in an attempt to control the rebellious paint from spreading throughout the entire park.

But it didn't work.

The wall is only five feet tall by, maybe, 15 feet long.

Taggers covered it completely, and continued on to color the remaining blank cement.

That illustrates part of the problem which the rebellious side of Kitsap Graffiti presents.

"It's that whole 'You give 'em an inch, and they take a mile,' kind of thing," said Gabe Lee, art chair of the Artists for Freedom and Unity arts non-profit in Bremerton.

Earlier this summer, Lee and the AFU gallery, also keen to the value of expression within the art of vandalism, gave writers permission and an outlet to create their work on the alley side of the AFU building. So long as it was kept up to non-discriminative standards and the tagging stayed at the AFU.

It didn't work.

Tags started showing up on backs of other buildings throughout the alleyway while obscenities were stenciled onto the side of the AFU. So Lee and crew were forced to revoke the free space. They're now thinking of some project that might be able to use that group of artists' hands in a positive, constructive manner. Perhaps a mural.

But the whole nature of graffiti is, at its core, destructive.

Even if the artist is writing for a constructive purpose, the art is still shrouded in a disorderly mystique. Mischievousness seems almost as much a part of the art as the paint itself.

But it all carries a fairly stiff sentence for anyone caught in the act -- up to one year in jail, and up to a $5,000 fine for malicious mischief. The severity of the sentence depends on the amount of damage incurred. Damages of more than $250 qualify as a felony.

"Most of the tagging crap that we're seeing probably falls into the misdemeanor range, until they start breaking stuff," Kitsap County Sheriff's Office Deputy Scott Wilson said. "Most of it is just kids being idiots, doing it for the lark of causing damage because they can ... for whatever thrill they get out of spray painting the side of a building."

Within law enforcement, Wilson noted, graffiti has long been notoriously linked to gang-related violence as a form of territory markers in turf wars. But he said, while county authorities keep an eye out for such tags, he doesn't suspect that as the genesis behind much of the graffiti being done in Kitsap. More so just bored kids looking for something to do, ways to lash out, rebel or make a statement.

At the end of the school year each year on Bainbridge Island it's become a custom for outgoing seniors to tag the town, painting the Class of to supposedly leave their mark. This year, the seniors went a bit too far -- spray-painting cop cars too far -- and ended up in a heap of trouble for whitewashing gigantic "'08's" and other celebratory splat all over the place.

It's that type of graffiti -- like the rushed, scribbling of one's name just for the sake of scribbling one's name, or discriminatory or obscene images and remarks rendered just for the sake of disgracing a building or people -- that also, in part, labels the art of vandalism in infamy.

Still, in some writers' work, the art of vandalism can actually be a legitimate art form -- an influential and inspirational art form at that.

Take the established Bremerton artist Chuck Smart, who earlier this year won Best of Show honors at the Collective Visions Gallery statewide juried show. He's not even a big fan of tagging. He says it all looks the same to him. But the expressive concept behind graffiti was the muse for his latest exhibition -- collection of work called "Zoo York: The Graffiti Series" -- which hangs at Old Town Custom Framing and Gallery in Silverdale through the end of the month.

"There's a difference between people who tag and the type of graffiti I'm trying to do," Smart said. "I'm not trying to put my identity out there, just images and ideas."

And another example of Kitsap graffiti's influence on the wider art world, at Ploy Studios this month, an exhibit of work by Malia Macheel and Patrick Cooper hangs over a hodgepodge backdrop of muted color squares due to the fact that Macheel finds inspiration in graffiti that has been covered up.


Copyright © Chuck Smart. All Rights Reserved.