Street art can bring a city block to life. Bland gray becomes surprising color. Over the past decade, street art has become a creative gift. And a funding stream to cities. Tourists flock to view and pose with these bold, edgy designs. Who would guess that the evolution of street art has an unsettling connection to urban warfare?
Once, city leaders denounced these artworks. Namely, street art is the state-sanctioned form of graffiti. So, what is the difference between graffiti and street art? Really, just perspective and permission. Graffiti artists and street artists use many of the same techniques. Street artists may call themselves graffiti artists and vice versa. The only real difference is our response to the word “graffiti.” Due to our cultural understanding of private property and concerted, government messaging efforts, many of us find it difficult (if not impossible) to disconnect graffiti from vandalism and illegality. Law enforcement went after graffiti writers aggressively, and the military took notes.
Tactics of Urban Warfare
Law enforcement and city officials have tried to get rid of graffiti for decades. In the late 70s, New York City pronounced a “War on Graffiti.” And cities around the world followed that example. Leaders created task forces. Then these task forces developed strategies and tools that the military adopted for urban warfare. And while it sounds absurd, the evidence tells a different story.
- Identifying hot zones and erecting barriers to contain them. For example, the mayor of New York called for barbed wire fences to be placed around subway lots and buildings that graffiti writers liked to mark. Recent implementations of these tactics can be seen in the response to the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol. The first step was to erect barbed wire fences to prevent armed gunmen from a repeat attempt.
- Today, the United States bans chemical weapons. However, the recognition of their inhumanity was a more recent development. It was fighting graffiti that investment in chemicals became a key strategy. City officials developed formulas that resisted spray paint or made the paint easier to clean.
- Conducting surveillance of public spaces. For instance, we often see cameras recording on city streets. Whereas in the past the idea of being watched was not common in city life, we are now unsurprised. Camera surveillance is common in urban warfare. For example, in trying to catch graffiti artists, law enforcement used motion-activated, sound-activated cameras. Even the detection of paint fumes could trigger a camera sensor.
- Running intelligence operations to catch graffiti writers was common. So police departments started graffiti programs. In fact, they invited familiar artists and collected tips about other writers and graffiti “crews.” Then police marked up ‘tags.’ Consequently these actions sparked rivalries and retaliation among crews. And, the increase in activity made it easier for police to capture and arrest the artists.
- Communities used PR campaigns to stop young people from learning graffiti. For example, law enforcement gave financial rewards for turning graffiti artists into the police.
Graffiti Writer Response
Graffiti writers did answer these tactics. They created better paint and engineered spray bottles that worked faster. And taggers even used looser designs so they could paint quickly. For those with money, Spray-can-wielding drones can do the work and protect the writer.
Graffiti that Plays by Rules or Moves Past Them
Street art or graffiti art -this medium contains more complexity than many of us might recognize. Its history with urban warfare raises many questions around government surveillance and messaging, property rights and free speech, as well as, what gets to be considered art, and which art gets to be considered valuable. We brought it forward for your consideration, and we would love to hear your thoughts.
Betsy Scotto-Lavino is the Director of Education and Research for The Artistic Fuel Foundation. She is also a Ph.D. student, wife, mother of three, and a nature lover. If you can't find me, I'm probably in the woods.