It is an early Saturday in May and local vendors have set up booths in Iowa City along East Washington Street. The Farmers Market has just re-opened for the year and locals are enjoying the weather and eagerly purchasing fresh produce and other treats. Under the shade of the Chauncey Swan Parking Ramp, a man gazes thoughtfully.
His eyes are fixated at a cement wall. It appears that several people have written on the wall, but two pieces of street art stand out. Stylistically, they are distinct from one another. On the left is a 4-foot drawing of an unfamiliar creature with the tag ‘Choke.’ On the right is a large, illegible, spray painted tag that has been painted over another piece.
While the man seems to be captivated by this wall of graffiti, he admits to knowing little about the art form.
“What I see is a dialogue between the artists painting on the walls and the authorities that come and clean it all up,” he says.
Graffiti art is many things: A statement. Self-expression but also vandalism. Cultural, but a pain for those who have to clean it from their property. Thought-provoking, but also annoying. Complex, but simple. Misunderstood, and a crime.
It is these contradictions that draw people’s attention to graffiti, even while knowing that the conventions it breaks sometimes include the law.
A HISTORY OF COMMUNICATING
Graffiti, in its most basic form, can be traced to ancient times.
“People have always written on walls,” says Kembrew McLeod, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Iowa.
McLeod has written several books that focus on hip hop culture, including Freedom of Expression, and co-produced Copyright Criminals, a PBS documentary about hip hop. While interviewing artists and musicians throughout his career, McLeod has familiarized himself with many of the elements of the culture of hip hop, graffiti included.
Kembrew McLeod, associate professor of communication studies, University of Iowa
“In terms of graffiti as it’s recognized today – as an art form – it really started to evolve in the late 1960s and early 1970s into something that was more elaborate than simply someone’s name.” McLeod says.
One of the most famous graffiti street artists able to make a seemingly effortless shift from tagger to art icon is Jean-Michel Basquiat, a New York City artist who died in 1988. “He was basically a street kid graffiti artist who transitioned into, kind of, the lower-east-side, avant-garde art scene world in the early 1980s,” McLeod says.
McLeod says graffiti began to transform in the 1970s in New York City’s South Bronx. “People began to make more and more elaborate graffiti murals that would sometimes be painted on walls of abandoned buildings. There were a lot of abandoned buildings in New York, especially in the South Bronx, during that time. And then, interestingly enough, people started to paint on subway trains.”
Painting on subway trains gave graffiti artists the ability to show their art in New York City’s boroughs as the trains made daily trips through different neighborhoods.
While graffiti quickly developed into a cultural phenomenon and art form, the upsurge of street art wasn’t welcomed by everyone. “By the late 1970s, graffiti was targeted by the city as a real menace, and (New York City) began to aggressively try and scrub graffiti from its trains and find various ways of discouraging graffiti,” McLeod says.
Video: Layer upon Layer, Creating Graffiti
Local graffiti artist, Mone, paints a new piece of art under an overpass off of Holiday Road in Coralville, Iowa on May 22, 2013.
GRAFFITI AS VANDALISM
Iowa City Police Sgt. Vicki Lalla views graffiti as an expensive problem.
“A lot of people look at graffiti and think of it as being harmless, and it doesn’t hurt anybody,” she says. “And some of it is kind of fun to look at, for sure. But from the viewpoint of the property owner, it’s a nuisance because they have to clean it up, whether it’s a business or a residence, or even the city. The city has to pay to clean up a lot of graffiti.”
Lalla estimates there has been a gradual rise in graffiti in Iowa City in her 34 years on the police force. Graffiti is recognized under Iowa law as criminal mischief, but there is no easy way to distinguish graffiti crimes from other crimes also classified as criminal mischief.
Five degrees of criminal mischief exist in Iowa law, each increasing in seriousness and penalty. Most graffiti is defined as fifth-degree criminal mischief, a simple misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a fine.
First-degree criminal mischief, the most severe form, is a Class C felony and punishable by up to 10 years in prison. The severity of the offense is contingent on the value of the damaged property.
Graffiti artists rarely are caught and charged with the crime. “It’s nearly impossible to catch someone without a witness,” Lalla says.
Lalla’s main problem lies within the places artists choose to write their graffiti.
She admits though, that there are times when she has been impressed by graffiti she sees around town. “There is some stuff that is pretty ingenious, I think, when you see it. But that doesn’t make it any less criminal, doesn’t make it any less of a nuisance.”
Lalla says most of Iowa City’s graffiti is written on city property so, essentially, the city and taxpayers end up paying for the damage.
“I guess one way to look at it is, the only person that the graffiti doesn’t end up being somewhat of a nuisance to, is the person that’s putting it up.”
Gallery: Graffiti of Iowa City
Across Iowa City, graffiti springs up on walls, doors, benches, trash cans and bridges. Click through the gallery to see a few photos of graffiti from around Iowa City.
Graffiti by a railroad track along the Iowa River. Photo taken May 11, 2013.
Todd Thelen runs a vintage clothing and furniture store, Artifacts, in Iowa City’s northside business district. His property has been defaced by graffiti artists several times.
“I’m not offended by it, as long as it’s not destructive,” said Thelen, who graduated with an MFA in printmaking from the University of Iowa in 1993.
“The way I look at graffiti, there’s different levels. Graffiti’s been around a while and I kind of think of people like Keith Haring and Banksy who are doing kind of high graffiti. I mean, they actually think of it as art. And then you just get the random taggers who just want to put their name up for, whatever. It’s just an ego trip for them.”
Todd Thelen, the owner of Artifacts, and a piece of graffiti on his building in Iowa City.
Thelen says he sees graffiti as “outsider art.” He even has kept one piece of street art on an exterior wall at Artifacts. He says he never has gotten in any trouble with the city over keeping some of the graffiti on his walls.
“If they (graffiti artists) were taking their time and doing something serious, I wouldn’t be so offended. But when it’s just junk, I get pissed off, and then I have to repaint it.”
Thelen usually notifies the city when his property is tagged. He says he isn’t bothered much by his costs for covering up the graffiti on his building. “It’s not a lot. It’s just a real aggravation. So, it usually costs around $25 to $50. But three or four times, it adds up.”
If given the opportunity to speak with some of the taggers who have defaced his property, Thelen would tell them: “Stop being boring. If you’re really going to get into it, then get into it. Be serious about it.”
AN ARTIST SPEAKS
One of Iowa City’s street artists tags under the name, Mone. Revealing his real name could expose him to unwanted attention, particularly when it comes to the law.
Mone has been experimenting and refining his craft for the past six years. From a young age, he had been captivated by the art form. “I was always infatuated with the style of imagery that graffiti casts,” he says.
Mone credits a Los Angeles-based graffiti crew, MSK, as one of his main artistic inspirations, but is quick to add, “the people around you will always be the strongest inspiration in your life. Always surround yourself with good people.”
Now, he says, “I feel like I am a part of this culture in this modern day society.”
Mone says he is a self-taught artist who believes that his growth in life as a person has had a direct effect on the progression of his art. “Graffiti is a way of life to me. I like to express myself quickly with style and move on to the next thing.”
Ask him where he would put his graffiti, if given the opportunity to place it anywhere in the world, he responds, “Wherever’s clever.”
Mone expresses himself in other art forms, too, but graffiti is his medium of choice.
He says the appeal of graffiti is hard to explain. Part of it is the illegality of what he is doing. “I feel like a rebel but not by choice. I just want people to see my art free of cost. I want to give to the world. If that is against the law then I guess I’m lawless.”
Even so, he follows his own moral code. For example, “never do it on private owned businesses, never on cars or houses.” Mone says gang-related graffiti hurts the reputations of true street artists.
Mone has concerns about how people view graffiti art. “I notice that a lot people cannot tell the difference between great graffiti writers – who are more dedicated in the art form – and the average graffiti writer. This is because there is a strong lack of knowledge in this form of art and it is rarely taught to people because of the legality of it.”
Teaching people about graffiti would help people understand it, he says.
“It really grinds my gears when the average eye cannot see the difference between a piece of art work and vandalism.
"I do not go out looking to deface property. I feel as though I am giving life to it.”