How Hyper-Restrictive Graffiti Laws Hurt Chicago Street Art
Street art was once synonymous with gangs and tagging. Why is this? Well, at the root of it, it comes down to racism, classism, and fear. Think about the images of 1980s New York City train cars, rolling into the stations, covered in brightly colored words and images. What’s frightening about that? For those who opposed street art, they saw it as crass and unseemly. They had no control over who made it, what it looked like, and where it was. It wasn’t planned, and it wasn’t announced. It wasn’t executed in the popular style of the time. It didn’t look like “high art”. People who did street art weren’t rich, and often weren’t white. They didn’t fit the mainstream concept of artist.
The social and cultural arc of street art in America is tied very closely to the history of disinvestment, segregation, and under-resourcing of urban communities of color. And the criminalization of graffiti runs parallel to the criminalization of poverty and the rise of mass incarceration. Most cities instated harsh laws against graffiti in the 1990s, at the same time that prisons were popping up everywhere, and tough-on-crime legislation was in vogue. It was part of a philosophy towards public safety that falsely believed punishing small misdemeanors with harsh punishments would deter people from committing violent crime.
Instead, laws against graffiti, like laws against marijuana, panhandling, and sex work, turned out to put people under extreme financial duress, prevent them from accessing higher education and safe housing, and in many cases exclude them from the workforce. Anti-graffiti laws are part of a larger cycle of poverty and criminalization that result in over-policing, lack of economic opportunity, and failure to address real public health crises like addiction and mental health.
Needless to say, anti-graffiti laws also have a negative effect on the production of new street art. Some artists were dissuaded from creating altogether, not wanting to risk the consequences. For many folks, street art and graffiti were accessible ways to be creative and practice art that they could afford. When it was no longer an option, practicing art became much more difficult. People who did risk fines and imprisonment still had to contend with the reality that their work would likely only last a few days, before the city painted over it or power-washed it away. In Chicago, the laws are especially tough, and have stayed that way. Many other cities have relaxed regulations on graffiti and lowered fines, but Chicago has only tightened its insistence on stamping out unofficial street art, wherever it pops up.
The Graffiti Blasters And How Chicago Became One Of The Least Street-Art Friendly Cities in America
In Chicago, these laws took form in the early 1990s, under the second Mayor Daley. The second Daley was a veritable crusader against graffiti, which he saw as a blight on the city’s new development. Notorious for his racism and classism (see the 1995 Chicago heat wave for a glaring example), Daley’s attitudes towards graffiti were no surprise. He thought that graffiti would make Chicago ugly and drive out developers, tourists, and new residents flocking in from wealthy suburbs. Daley focused his mayoral efforts on Downtown and the near Northside and near Southside. He neglected any needed resources in less wealthy and white areas, pouring Chicago’s budget into making the center of Chicago picturesque.
However, graffiti was not confined to low-income areas, with artists often travelling to tag and create their large-scale pieces. Many artists of the 1980s worked on train cars, enjoying the all-city aspect of their work, which would travel on its own and provide plenty of opportunities for viewing. So, in 1992 Daley prohibited the sale of spray-paint within city limits, to the dismay of artists and paint manufacturers. It was his first foray into anti-graffiti law, and it made him a lot of enemies.
The ordinance was challenged in court, and made its way all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was upheld. This ordinance is still in place today, although ironically, it’s a huge money-loser for the city. Most people who really wanted to get their hands on spray-paint simply travelled outside of city limits to purchase what they were looking for.
The ban on spray-paint was just the beginning, and the truly effectual anti-graffiti laws were still around the corner. As it became clear that the ban had less impact on the proliferation of street art than the Mayor intended, he formed a new department of the city government. The Graffiti Blasters were officially inaugurated in 1993, and became a task force devoted to the quick removal of any street art which popped up.
Anyone could call the city or their alderman and report graffiti on private or public property. The city would be there within 48-hours to either blast the paint off the surface with pressure washers filled with a solution of water and baking soda, or to paint over it with dark brown. This program still exists today, although the penalties for getting caught creating street art are much worse than in the 1990s. A ticket for graffiti can reach $2,500, a crushing price to pay for a simple piece of street art.
A video on the City of Chicago’s website today says, “Graffiti is vandalism. It scars the community, hurts property values and diminishes our quality of life. Graffiti removal is a free service for private property owners and has become one of the most popular services offered by the City of Chicago.” The price of the city’s graffiti removal services are quite high, as they have to employ year-round Graffiti Blasters and purchase plenty of vehicles and other materials. The anti-graffiti program cost $9 million in 2010. In 2014, then Mayor Rahm Emmanuel threw another million dollars at graffiti removal, citing the need for efficient and speedy removal of the offending artwork.
The Gabriel Villa Mural Controversy and This Is Modern Art
In 2009, Gabriel Villa, a Chicago-based artist, was commissioned to create a mural in the Bridgeport neighborhood. A private business, Kaplan’s Liquors, had offered up one of its exterior walls to the artist to paint as he saw fit. As a Latinx artist, working on the Southside of Chicago, Villa wanted to create a mural referencing the over-policing and disinvestment that he saw as inherent to the non-white experience in the city. His mural included three police camera boxes, which he saw as symbols of mass surveillance and over-policing, along with a deer head, an image of the crucified Christ, and a skull.
Just days from its completion, the 11th Ward Alderman at the time, James Balcer, called the Graffiti Blasters and had it painted over. This sparked an enormous controversy, as Villa had permission from the owners, and the mural was on private property. The Alderman claimed that the mural was undesirable and that it referenced “gang imagery” and “violence”. National groups like the ACLU and the National Coalition Against Censorship weighed in on the issue, supporting Villa and advocating for his rights to protected political free speech. Mayor Daley called the incident a “mistake”, and the Alderman refused to apologize. The scandal highlighted the issues and contradictions within the city government when it comes to graffiti and its removal.
Today, swaths of street art in gentrified neighborhoods of the city are huge tourist draws, and make the city millions of dollars. However, the refusal of the city to de-escalate graffiti laws, or to view street art in non-white neighborhoods as worthy of preservation and celebration is stark. In 2010, a group of 5 graffiti artists painted a 50-foot spread across one of the Art Institute of Chicago’s walls, including the phrase “Modern Art”. It intensified the debate around graffiti as art and the division between high and low culture, sparking new conversation. It even inspired a play about graffiti art, called “This Is Modern Art”.
As graffiti art and style elements appear in contemporary art museums and galleries, attitudes are beginning to shift. These are more and more so-called “permission walls” springing up around Chicago, which are legal and protected canvases for street artists to play and practice. However, the city still has a long way to go in order to counteract its past militant action against street art and graffiti. Penalties are harsh, and the spray paint ban is still in place. It’s up to the city government itself to begin to soften these laws, and to create a more equitable and open Chicago, true to its artistic legacy.
What Street Art Brings To Communities
Street art can be a huge asset to cities, both culturally and financially. Sharing public art brings people together and strengthens bonds between different communities. It is also a draw for tourists, who often visit cities just to see their street art and murals. Some neighborhoods and entire cities put together street art tours, and charge for an informed look at the style and soul of their city. A great example of this is Berlin, whose colorful murals and pieces of wall art are known around the globe. Thousands of tourists flock into Berlin each year to tour it’s ever-changing street art landscape. Specific destinations like Raw Gelände, the Haus Schwarzenberg street art alley, and the Berlin Wall memorial are huge draws and offer tours by experts in almost every language.
The benefits of street art don’t stop there. Street art is often politically motivated, and deals with specific identities and communities of people. Street art brings people together and validates the experiences of often marginalized communities. It can also have a sizable impact on public opinion and be an impetus for political education. A great illustration of this phenomenon is the central BLM mural in Portland, Oregon. It was executed this summer during the height of the BLM protests, and covers the entirety of Apple Pioneer Place store in the heart of the city. It holds portraits of black Americans murdered by police, and includes facts about the realities of systemic racism nationally and specifically in Portland. The mural is a hyper-visible piece of art which works to make all the residents of Portland understand the causes of the summer’s racial reckoning.
Street art is a powerful tool for connection, community, and education. It’s a way to express identity and celebrate aspects of one’s culture. Although Chicago is historically hostile to street art, things are beginning to shift. Murals, street art, and political tagging is part of Chicago’s character today, and we need to celebrate and uplift street artists who make our city unique.
Learn more about IPaintMmMind’s Custom Mural program here. If you’ve got a blank wall that you want to fill, we’ve got the perfect artists for the job!
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