Graffiti has had a long history in Seattle and in the world. The term was originally used to refer to inscriptions and drawings found in ancient ruins. The earliest forms of graffiti date back to around 30,000 B.C. in the form of cave drawings.
In the early 1990s, graffiti became closely aligned with Hip Hop culture and along with its evolution. It has since become an artform, a means of public expression.
“Graffiti is vandalism without permission,” says the Seattle Police Department’s website. “Graffiti is any marking placed on public or private property without the owner’s permission. Stickers are also illegal.”
The City of Seattle’s Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs had a budget of almost $7.4 million last year. In 1973, Seattle became one of the first cities in the country to adopt a percent-for-art ordinance. According to their website, for nearly 40 years, the program has specified that “1% of eligible city capital improvement project funds be set aside for the commission, purchase and installation of artworks in a variety of settings.” This includes more than 380 permanent works and 2,800 portable works.
The city has also created the Youth Arts program which funds arts projects and education for local teens. This last year, the program awarded out a total of $175,000 to 34 separate youth-oriented organizations. According to their website, they estimate that the “funded projects engaged more than 5,400 youth in about 42,400 hours of arts training throughout the city.”
For a city with such an open embrace of the arts, it is interesting that it is so strict on one single artform. In 2011, University District resident Russell Johanson was fined $2,000 for refusing to remove graffiti from his own property.
“I would like to expose the absurdity of the code,” said Johanson in an October 2011 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article, “It’s not anybody’s business but mine. This comes perilously close to the government saying, ‘We get to tell you what color to paint your house. We tell you how to dress, what to do.’”
The City of Seattle’s graffiti ordinance requires property owners to remove graffiti once someone has made a complaint. However, owners can take advantage of a loophole by stating that the graffiti is authorized to be on their property. This little loophole has led to what is possibly Seattle’s most famous graffiti installation, the Tubs building. This abandoned hot tub business stands tall on the 50th and Roosevelt, just a few blocks from Johanson.
For years, citizens in the neighborhood have complained, but the city is caught in a legal bind and cannot do anything about it. The owner says that he actually likes the graffiti there. This has led to its evolution into a well-known ‘freewall’. Locally, a few others have followed, like those in Georgetown and SoDo.
“There’s some artwork in the Seattle Art Museum I consider garbage, worse than graffiti.” said Johanson in the Seattle PI article, “Therefore, if I call the hotline and I consider that graffiti, they have to send a letter to the Seattle Art Museum and say you’ve got X days to paint this out…The problem is the impossibility of defining what art is.”
“Some of it can be really tasteful,” said Aviation High School sophomore Emilio Anselmo, “A lot of people think it’s something it really isn’t. It is another artform, that’s what I think. And the people who pull it off really well deserve all the respect and credit.”
With only a few safe places for graffiti and such a stern view on it from the city, the future of the art is in question. The Seattle Police Department even has an online report form and Hotline to report graffiti. Some would argue that to erase the ‘vandalism’ aspect of the art, all we need are more dedicated places like the Tubs building for the artists to work. Others would argue that this encourages vandalism and the defacing of property in the public eye.
“And I think that if they get more light,” Anselmo, “like good publicity on them, and they do more and more artworks that are either charged or that carry a meaning besides just having a piece of art somewhere, then I feel it can turn into something really good.”
The City of Seattle has commissioned many different pieces of street art over the years. One great example is along the SoDo train line. There are numbers of beautiful commissioned murals created by local artists and local youth.
“There’s a building in New York,” said Anselmo, “ it was right next to the 7-Line and it was completely covered in graffiti. Graffiti artists were invited to tag the building and leave their own personal mark. It was this big mural of all different sorts of styles and all different sorts of cultures. It was kind of a mecca of all these different people getting together and sharing their ideas of what they saw as art.”
Just like Anselmo said, a mural is defined as any artwork created upon a wall. The only difference between a mural and a painting is the surface on which is created. Following this, all graffiti is, by definition, a mural. Those along the SoDo train line are shining examples to the beauty and creativity that graffiti can bring.
“I don’t think it encourages vandalism. Of course there are going to be some bad painters that are painting for the glory of it,” said Anselmo, “I think that those artists, those graffiti artists who are doing it for the art of it itself, they’re really dedicated to it and I think it inspires something completely opposite of vandalism.”
Graffiti always has been, and maybe always will be, a struggling artform. For those artists out there, they have very limited options, trapped by definition. This leaves the future of the art in question.