Feathered Bastard

Graffiti on Phoenix's Light Rail Could Be a Beautiful Thing

SREK's work, for instance, would look impressive on the side of a light rail car.

Keith Haring. Jean-Michel Basquiat. The creators of Arizona's petroglyphs. What do they all have in common? They were all practitioners of graffiti. Indeed, graffiti is the oldest art form known to man. The earliest found examples of "graffiti" are estimated to have been created some 30,000 years ago, when our Stone Age ancestors were depicting animals and mythical creatures on the walls of caves.
The Chauvet Cave in southern France is often described as the richest discovery of ancient art ever located. On its walls are hundreds of paintings, showing at least 13 different species. There are even prints made from spitting pigment on hands and pressing them onto the walls. The rock panels of lions or horses are quite simply magnificent. Only the most cretinous of  imbeciles would suggest that such works of ancient art be painted over.

And, yet, here in P-town, our city government spends $2.3 million to rid the city of graffiti. Recently Phoenix City Councilman Tom Simplot, who is also chairman of METRO's board of directors (you know, the people responsible for the new choo-choo), declared that there would be "zero tolerance" for graffiti on Phoenix's new light rail, which opens this coming weekend. He equated urban art to refuse, telling an Arizona Republic's scribe that, "The last thing we want is a graffiti-ridden, garbage-strewn light rail system."

A piece by graf artist The MAC, on a tattoo shop roll-up wall. Would Tom Simplot liken this aerosol art to "garbage" as well?

Thing is, there will be graffiti on the light rail whether Councilman Simplot likes it or not. Even if there is a cop on every car, and cameras recording every inch of space 24-7, taggers and other aerosol artists will have at the new light rail. And they will be successful because they love a challenge, and because "getting up" on a light rail car is a guarantee of being seen. In New York, for instance, where the subway system involves around 700 miles of track and runs 24-7, city workers practically buff those cars every night. And yet, day after day, the graf artists come forth to make their mark, and snatch whatever brief fame they can attain.

More graffiti on the Phoenix light rail and other parts of this city means better, more aesthetically pleasing graffiti. Or in other words, better art. Yes, there is bad graffiti just as there is bad art. But we should be encouraging the advancement of more better graffiti, if you'll pardon the phrase. And there are specific ways Simplot and others can do this. Take the example of the legal walls sponsored by local businesspersons, and taken advantage of by such art collectives as Forever in Control.

Those legal walls, say at Miranda's Custom Cars, or at the Madison Event Center, are not tagged. Why? In part it is the code of the street. Writing on another artist's piece is an insult. But the artists involved tend to their pieces as well, fixing any such problems as quickly as they appear. Finally, most graffiti artists, unless they are naive "toys," who are new to the game, appreciate good work, and would not think of marring the pieces on these legal walls.

So why not allow art collectives such as Forever in Control to paint the Light Rail trains? Also, commission artists such as The Mac, whose murals resemble old masters with their themes of religion and feminine beauty, to turn lose their talents on these rather plain looking vehicles? Such a project might actually encourage more people to ride the trains. And it would discourage the "bad" graffiti for all of the reasons that it's discouraged on legal walls. The Madison Event Center's owners report, for instance, that they have not been tagged with gang graffiti since DOSE and his fellow Forever in Control artists (and their allies) have begun painting on their property.

Ironically, the City Council, in its infinite wisdom during a time of tight budgets, is forking over some $2.4 million on an aerial sculpture downtown by Boston sculptor Janet Echelman that's currently in the process of being built. However, the sort of program I'm proposing would cost a small fraction of that, and would encourage local artists, who would likely be spending their money in Phoenix, not in Boston, or even in Tucson, where the engineering firm responsible for building Echelman's piece is located.

Of course, Simplot and other local pols would have to rid themselves of their bigotry towards graffiti in order to see the beauty of this plan. I encourage them to pick up a monograph or biography of the aforementioned Haring or Basquiat. Their art, which began on the streets, now hangs in museums. They must've been doing something right.

If Valley Metro's satraps would rather ignore the potential for legal graffiti on the trains, and instead inundate us with advertising on these choo-choos, well, they're begging for attention from PHX's taggers. And if  those trains get rocked by the baddest and the best, I can't say I'd be too upset by it. That is, as long as they don't get caught.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons