the ARTistry of ARThistory occasionally done ARTfully

Graffiti Art and the Law

Posted by gninja on June 30, 2007


I caught this item in The ArtsJournal recently.

Graffiti artist Alan Ket, whose real name is Alain Mariduena, has been criminally charged in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan with various counts including criminal mischief, making graffiti, and possession of graffiti tools. Mr Mariduena, whose work has been displayed in galleries, has pleaded not guilty to all charges and says that he was nowhere near the damaged subway cars or stations at the time of the alleged crimes, and that the graffiti was done by copycat artists. He is due back in court this month.

Mr Mariduena’s lawyer, Daniel Perez, of Kuby & Perez, New York, told The Art Newspaper: “For the first time, prosecutors are trying to imprison someone for a graffiti offence who has not been caught in the act. There are no witnesses, no videotapes, no direct evidence of any kind linking Mr Mariduena to these alleged crimes.”

Although the legal ramifications of this case– i.e. charging a graffiti artist based on forensics–are significant, my interests don’t really lie there. For one, I’m no legal expert. I should say, however, from the get-go, that I think criminal prosecution of graffiti artists is preposterous. So my conversation needs to begin with the premise that the treatment of graf artists as criminals is unacceptable. At worst, vandalism (if one considers graffiti vandalism) could be classified as a misdemeanor.

There are also the social matters that accompany the politics of graffiti art, which, again, aren’t really of interest here. Plenty of ink has been spilled over it. Suffice to say, I think Permission Walls are only a trifle less insidious and stifling of expression as Free-Speech Zones, the distinction being that the legality of creating art on other people’s property is questionable, whereas that of exercising free-speech is total.

My two cents, then, are being deposited on the aesthetic side of the issue. Which is slippery as hell. Just as slippery as asking what art is: ask Heidegger. In short, there’s a distinction between good graf and bad graf. It’s not so much like porn in that I know it when I see it — because I’m no Supreme Court Justice imposing subjective standards upon everyone else. And yet… I do know bad graf when I see it. Bad graf is that for which I don’t have any images because nobody bothers to take a photo of a crappy tag that looks like a five-year-old got hold of some Krylon. Bad graf is what ends up on the facades of apartment buildings, where there was little inspiration in placement, arrangement, or form. Bad graf looks like vandalism.

Good graf, on the other hand, is not just beautiful. Good graf shows a thoughtful mind behind its placement. Good graf is in public spaces. Good graf has a social conscience. Good graf is not necessarily about beauty. Goof graf is about good custodianship. It’s about un-automatizing our motions through urban space, from filtering out ads and movement and lights and sounds to focusing on words and images that want nothing more from us than our attention.

Look, there’s no way to mandate what good and bad graf are. Even trying to do so would take the strictures that already exist within the walls of museums and extend them beyond that barrier which graf artists have been struggling to co-opt as their own (and share with others) since spray can hit cement. Urban spaces are filled with enough frontiers, barriers, and thresholds as it is. I doubt many graf artists would even want to lay claim to a stretch of Park Avenue, anyway. But outside of such rarefied zones where art is not relegated to walls and behind frames, there are those who want their exterior spaces un-blank (yes, un-blank). At the end of the day, graf artists are a self selecting community. If they want their work to be seen, they don’t create garbage.

Getting back to the original news item though. What strikes me as amusing is that the cops are using forensic evidence (i.e. the tags) to prosecute Ket. It sounds an awful lot like connoisseurship, no?

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