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State of the Art: Graffiti in Tacoma

We'e going to break it down real simple for ya

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Time to break it down nice, slow and simple.

Once and for all — Graffiti is art.

There. I said it. Never ask again.

Sorry. But the discussion surrounding graffiti as an art form is usually about that brief. Either graffiti is art or it’s crime. Occasionally someone will summon enough mental acuity to define it as both. On very rare occasions the conversation gets more in depth. Whatever the case, this once underground art form is officially emerging as a pop culture phenomenon, and more and more people are talking about graffiti and its place in the world of art.

That conversation heated up in New York in the 1990s, when modern forms of graffiti covered nearly a tenth as much of the city as McDonald’s and Nike ads. During that time New York City officials began allocating millions of dollars to so-called graffiti abatement programs. These concentrated efforts to imprison graffiti artists were supplemented with laws and cleanup efforts intended to erase graffiti from every surface in the city. Many graffiti artists — faced with imprisonment, disheartened by the near instantaneous removal of their art, and seduced by the promise of safety — shouldered their way into galleries, museums and, often, onto the walls of the people enthusiastically funding abatement programs with their tax dollars.

More than a decade later the war on graffiti continues with programs like the ones from New York spreading throughout the nation and more and more graffiti artists crossing over and choosing to work in sanctioned venues. 

But many of these same graffiti artists return to the streets, alleyways, train yards and underpasses, risk jail, and continue to paint illegally despite increasing opportunity to show in galleries, paint on risk-free, so-called free walls and, in a growing number of cases, get paid well for painting elsewhere.

OK, maybe it’s not that simple.

That fact became clear this past weekend as a dozen or so artists celebrated the re-opening of the legendary Broadway Tacoma graffiti garages. As part of an invitation-only, relatively quiet gathering, graffiti artists from Seattle and Tacoma filled three parking garages with a dozen or so burners (read: murals).

For those who have never been, the garages consist of three large parking bays at the end of Tacoma’s Antique Row. A year ago, those same garages were laced wall to wall with the work of dozens of artists from all over the country — massive, complex murals with all of the aesthetic qualities that gallery patrons talk about over wine and cheese. No one seemed to mind until last year, when city of Tacoma Code Enforcement received a complaint about the art that had accumulated there during the past decade. At the time, the art met city definitions of graffiti and was deemed in violation of city codes. The city ordered the garages’ owners to cover it up.

A year later, graffiti is back in the garages. And this time it’s going up with the city’s blessing. Thanks to the work of Tacoma’s Safe and Clean Team, local nonprofit Fab 5, and property owners Lorig and Associates, the work now appearing in the graffiti garages is defined as “free form painting,” according to a letter received by neighboring property owners. The space is being made available in an attempt to provide artists with a place to express themselves. The hope is that having a sheltered environment that’s approved for use will keep local artists from painting on other buildings, says city of Tacoma Arts Administrator Amy McBride.

“Part of the Safe and Clean Team’s goal is to reduce vandalism,” she says. “This is one strategy — to find places for people to paint.”

For the most part, city laws surrounding graffiti address for what many people is the only manifestation of graffiti culture — so-called “tagging,” which usually consists of some knucklehead writing his name somewhere with a permanent marker. More ambitious taggers use spray paint. Regardless of their chosen medium, taggers don’t put a lot into their work. And for every serious graffiti artist out there, there are a couple dozen taggers.

Most onlookers don’t differentiate between tagging and the sort of work that’s emerging on Broadway.

“This place is going to attract artists,” says Greaves, a Seattle-based graffiti artist who is known well in sanctioned and unsanctioned venues. “You’re not going to see the tag-bangers in here. We hate them as much as anyone else.”

“When you look at these garages, it’s not about tagging,” says veteran Charms, who got started in Riverside, Calif., and has spent the last 17 years as a graffiti artist in Seattle and Tacoma. “This is about art. This place is like a hall of fame. Only people of a certain caliber should paint here.”

Charms spent the first 12 years of his art career working illegally — and proudly so. But he doesn’t mind the chance to work in a sanctioned venue. Charms says he believes that free walls and other venues address a serious need — a place for artists working in this particular medium to do what they do.

Greaves says he welcomes the free-wall phenomenon but is concerned that carving out a legal space for graffiti is at odds with the art form’s foundations.

“Illegal is what graffiti is meant to be,” he says. “I take a free wall as a place to practice. But a lot of these younger guys take this sort of thing for granted. They don’t all understand where this came from.”

Fab 5’s Eddie Sumlin, meanwhile, is working to figure out where it’s going — at least in Tacoma. So far he has worked with several city agencies and cut through a lot of red tape to re-open the Broadway garages. All he sees there, he says, are opportunities for artists and a chance for people to see that graffiti has more to offer than most people can imagine.

“I can’t wait to see the looks on people’s faces,” he says.

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Comments for "State of the Art: Graffiti in Tacoma" (5)

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tracey said on Oct. 20, 2009 at 2:00pm

QUALITY I really like this, it reminds me of a graffiti artist I saw at their is a few more good graffiti artists on the site.

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amanda j said on Oct. 09, 2009 at 10:16pm

I, for one, think graffiti like this actually improves the whole community on many, many levels. It is a painting, with or without the urban slang, and it beautifies public spaces in most cases. Thumbs up!

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teroONER said on Oct. 10, 2009 at 12:54pm


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User said on Oct. 13, 2009 at 2:00pm

Yet it so happens that every Graffiti artist who paints burners has a tag, and chances are he throws it up from time to time. "taggers don’t put a lot into their work," and this is simpley ignorance. A good tag is a hell of alot harder to come by then someone with the ability to paint a piece. Artists spend years developing their tags. The fact is that it takes the eyes of a writer to know the difference between a slop tag and one that is truly beautiful.

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dan said on Dec. 11, 2010 at 7:41am

i agree with the poster above, there are many intricate details in a well put together tag which takes years of practice. You can hire a graffiti artist for a lesson in graffiti and learn how to tag properly. and practice!!!

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