Breaking the Law

I'm not a fan of the tags that mostly pass for graffiti art in Regina. Yes, an argument can be made that a tagger, especially if they belong to a marginalized community and they're tagging a building, bridge or other structure located in a prominent public location, is asserting their right to be seen by civic powerbrokers -- and by extension, acknowledged and heard. But tagging in Regina seems to be pretty indiscriminate. And defacing the garage or garbage bin of a cash-strapped senior or impoverished inner city family, forcing them to undergo the expense and trouble of having the tag removed or else be fined under a City of Regina bylaw, isn't exactly my idea of sticking it to the man. It would be nice too if taggers were a bit more creative with their mark-making instead of just squiggling away.

But there is such a thing as true graffiti art. And it does have a legitimate role to play in our society as a form of socio-political commentary. That's why the arrest this week of Los Angeles graffiti artist Frank Shepard Fairey on the eve of an exhibition of his work opening at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Boston is extremely troubling. Fairey isn't the first artist who began their career on the street, cultivating a unique and edgy urban visual style that initially brought them into conflict with property owners, police, the courts and politicians, but that later won them acclaim in the contemporary art community. Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring are the two best-known examples.

Graffiti has been around since ancient times. When done with style and panache, it provokes people to think about the structure of the space around them and how messages of power and privilege are conveyed in our society. For Boston police to arrest Fairey for his graffiti-related activities (including a felony charge for an outstanding warrant dating back to 2000) was a simple power play on their part that confirms their role as an instrument of state oppression. Oh, in addition to the Andre the Giant image posted above, here's another sample of Fairey's work. It currently hangs in the US National Portrait Gallery in Washington.