Art crime: coming to a hydro box near you

6 Sep

Jody Beck of Page One Publishing commented on our blog last week about elusive British stencil graffiti artist Banksy. It opened my eyes to stencil graffiti that appears everywhere in Victoria.

I began noticing stencil portraits on lampposts, bridge girders and hydro boxes around town. Sometimes they’re accompanied by hate slurs.

It is vandalism or is it art? Are these social and political messages, or simply self-interested expressions?

The Victoria Police Department takes a dim view of any graffiti, regardless of the artistic merit. Those responsible will be prosecuted etc. Businesses and condos spend million of dollars removing and repainting tagged surfaces (hey, graffiti removal is huge business, for all you entrepreneurs).

Still, stencil graffiti and its more extravagant parent endure in alleys and other less-public routes throughout Victoria. Click here to see some truly fantastic examples of local graffiti art.

The cut-outs pictured in this post, with the enscribed ASTK signature, are stapled to hydro poles, so they could be easily removed. But even here they’re defaced with other graffiti.

Being an advertising guy, my gears start grinding away about the potential use of these expressions to motivate people.

But given a public that is split on its merit, and a police authority that views it uncharitably, I’m sticking to the legal limits.

24 Responses to “Art crime: coming to a hydro box near you”

  1. Jordan September 6, 2010 at 2:19 pm #


    “Any advert in public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.” – Banksy (Wall and Peace)

  2. Mario Parise September 7, 2010 at 7:40 am #

    It’s art regardless of whether it’s ethical or legal or what not. Vandals practice their art knowing full well they might be prosecuted and that their art will likely be painted over at some point. Heck, that’s probably somehow part of the allure.

    Just to make my point here: If an artist was pro-Nazi and created hateful work, would it not still be art? Since when do we get to decide what counts as art and what doesn’t?

    If someone can put up a urinal on a museum wall and call it art, vandalism must certainly still count.

    In terms of the potential to use graffiti for advertising purposes, check out Reverse Graffiti:

    If you’ve ever used your finger to write “Wash Me” on a dirty car, you’re a reverse graffiti artist. And since all you’re really doing is being selective about what surface areas to clean, you can’t readily be charged with vandalism.

  3. dougbrowncreative September 7, 2010 at 7:57 am #

    Art is a very convenient term isn’t it Mario. Anything can be art, any human expression can be called artistic expression. Everyone is therefore an artist. Your reply was art, because certainly writing is our form of expression.

    So yes, vandalism is art. Protest is art. Mayhem is art. Murder is art. Such an artistic world we live in!

  4. Jody Beck September 7, 2010 at 10:41 am #

    It’s such a sensitive issue, isn’t it? Regardless of the merit of work, vandalism is vandalism. I agree with Doug; stick within the law. If you believe people have the right to deface a business owner’s property for the sake of a political or artistic statement, first imagine the scenario as if your own property was the target. Does this change your view? I am impressed with the number of businesses in Victoria who have seen the value in street art and have supported artists with commissioned walls; it definitely breathes life into the walls and streets.

    As for Banksy, love or hate what he does, his imagery is arresting, creative and daring. I will always be a fan. Btw Jordan, thanks for the Brandalism quote: awesome!

  5. Jordan September 7, 2010 at 12:00 pm #

    The point Mario made about hateful Nazi art, and the point Doug made about “Murder is art” – are way off the mark.

    I can’t remember if it was Marshall McLuhan, Andy Warhol, or Mike Zukerberg, who said “Art is whatever you can get away with”, but unless you can get away with murder or hate crimes – you can’t call it “art”.

    There was an “artist” who tied a dog to a stake, and starved it to near death. PETA, and the rest of society deemed this a cruelty and not art, b/c it has no aesthetic value, or gesture of expression. Society, and Canadian law forbids hate crimes and cruelty.

    Some may continue to practice animal cruelty or hate speech, but society does not sanction this work, and individuals do not consider this work to be an interesting form of expression.

    There is a big difference between breaking a window and painting one on a wall. Vandalism is not vandalism all the time. I don’t like seeing tags, but I do like how a blank wall can be turned to a colorful mural with ten bucks worth of spraypaint.

    In a world invested by Helvetica, and unimaginative advertisements, I’d prefer to live in a place where surprising and interesting points of view catch my eye as I drive through an otherwise soul-sucking industrial park.

    Thanks for the post!

  6. dougbrowncreative September 7, 2010 at 12:19 pm #

    Well I think my tongue was kind of in my cheek when I said murder was art Jordan. But some artists, ritual self-mutilators for example, consider their performances art. Is there an ultimate board that determines artistic merit or aesthetic value? Sometimes there is. But in it’s absence, the artist decides what is art.

    The law may not like it, the public may decry it, but hasn’t art over the centuries fought public and legal censorship?

    Interesting, twisting area! I appreciate your comment and your love of embellishments to soul-sucking industrial parks. Saw some fantastic work this morning on Douglas St. near the Dairy Queen.

  7. ngawangchodron November 11, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    I have taken pics of some more ASTK’s:

  8. dougbrowncreative November 11, 2010 at 7:15 am #

    Hey thank you very much ngawangchodron. I recently saw the Ice Cube portrait up on Douglas too. I really appreciate you popping these into the post. This has become kind of an obsessive thing for me. I am always looking for them now. Cheers!

  9. dougbrowncreative November 17, 2010 at 9:45 am #

    Thank you Benjamin. I checked out the three you have spied. Recently saw the new one on Douglas St and Princess. That stretch, and the parallel Government stretch, have a number on the east side of the road facing the traffic.

  10. ML November 17, 2010 at 10:43 am #

    FWIW, also saw a copy of your top photo — the Ghandi one — on a concrete trash container along the Galloping Goose, just south of the Burnside Bridge.

    It caught my eye the first time I saw it because I initially thought it was a mask. In the dim light of a cloudy late afternoon, it had a 3-D quality.

    At some point, I mean to get a photo of it…

  11. dougbrowncreative November 17, 2010 at 4:58 pm #

    That’s where I spied the Mahatma too. There are several of them along the Goose. Odd with the rocket launcher under him, but compelling!

  12. Lotus Johnson November 17, 2010 at 6:50 pm #

    I think that I may have the largest number of photos of Victoria graffiti, tags and pasteups in Victoria, you might like to check some of them out:

    Political graffiti

    As far as ASTK is concerned, I think that he sometimes does his stencils over pre-painted cardboard, since I have seen brand new ones which have paint which is not part of the stencil

  13. dougbrowncreative November 17, 2010 at 9:14 pm #

    Thanks for that link and the info Lotus. Here’s something I learned about ASTK today: he’s a she.

  14. ngawangchodron November 17, 2010 at 11:17 pm #

    This is ASTK’s flickr photostream:

  15. dougbrowncreative November 18, 2010 at 5:15 am #

    That’s appreciated. I actually found my way to it yesterday: that’s how I know it was a female artist at work here.

  16. ngawangchodron November 18, 2010 at 9:28 pm #

    In this Wikipedia article about graffiti:
    there is a section about the commercialization and movement into mainstream pop culture of graffiti, including the example of 123Klan who have done ad campaigns for various top companies..Have you ever used any of this style of art in your ad work here, or do you think that the Victoria market wouldn’t be receptive..a bit more conservative here than in large centres I think.
    (This is just me being curious)

  17. dougbrowncreative November 19, 2010 at 5:15 am #

    It’s a good question. I think Victoria is no different than any other market when it comes to being intrigued and responding to good ideas. I have been thinking hard about applying what I’m learning from ASTK…it’s subversive stuff isn’t it. Takes a while to take hold. Most businesses are looking for much quicker ROI. But the obsessive thought lingers!

  18. ngawangchodron November 22, 2010 at 11:13 pm #

    It took me a while to think of the old old ad campaign I was thinking of..Burma Shave, its the repetition that made it noticeable to me (along with the newer Zion 250’s). Pasteups are some of the best graffiti, except for the “legal” graffiti places, since they can be elaborately created, but only take a short time to put in place (thus eluding the police) Otherwise many of the graffiti in Victoria tends to be tags or “throw ups”, which is a slightly more elaborate graffiti, but with limited colours. I’m only sorry that I wasn’t taking graffiti pics when there were more opportunities for the legal graffiti artists. Check out this set on Flickr of Esquimalt graffiti from 1996! Amazing!

  19. dougbrowncreative November 23, 2010 at 5:34 am #

    I don’t know if you’ve seen the stencil goat at Government and Yates, or the planes dropping bombs on the traffic box at Government and Fisgard, but there are other players doing their thing here with slap-up artwork. I have been running scenarios around my head for advertising applications, but the IDEA should lead the media choices. Maybe a perfect fit for this type of work will come around, but until then, the spaces are in the hands of talented and interesting local artists. Thanks for the link too. Good stuff.

  20. Benjamin Madison November 23, 2010 at 9:47 am #

    This is an interesting discussion. DBC I think you’re reaching for the impossible when you try to consider possible advertising applications in the realm of graffiti and the reason is stated in the original title of your post here: “Art Crime….” If there is a single determining characteristic to graffiti it has got to be that it is illegal and unauthorized. While tagging may have some aesthetic aspects it is fundamentally a crime against property performed as a political act. By its very nature graffiti is subversive. It may seem simplistic but I would say that whenever/wherever it is “allowed” or “encouraged” it is no longer graffiti but simply art on walls. Consequently, any advertising done as graffiti would rebound on the advertiser, who must be identifiable in order to benefit from the advertising, and is thereby subject to legal action. Paradoxically, the illegality of graffiti gives it some legitimacy. We are perhaps more tolerant of graffiti, more open to it, because the artist is probably not making any money from his or her efforts. In addition there is some risk attached to doing graffiti. For these reasons, however much we may agree or disagree with it, we know that it is a sincere expression.

  21. dougbrowncreative November 23, 2010 at 10:02 am #

    I understand your point and agree somewhat. Couple of things though:

    1. I’m not hung up on the word graffiti. I don’t consider ASTK’s art to be graffiti as you define it here. It’s art on posts. Easily removed, minimal damage to property. It might well be political, and can be, but i don’t see it as a political act. Now, spray painting the front of someone’s condo is different.

    2. Is “graffiti” defined by the artist or the viewer? If it’s defined by the viewer, than there may be advertising applications as long as they aren’t obviously so. Advertising has been known to be subversive at times too.

    3. I don’t think the public is tolerant of most defacing graffiti at all, and money has nothing to do with it. Risky, yes. My guess is that most Victorian’s would only be too happy to see some of these “artists” nailed in the act. Real artistic expression is different.

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I am still mulling this stuff around in my head!

  22. Jody Beck November 25, 2010 at 11:41 am #

    Speaking of ad campaigns utilizing graffiti, check out this little beauty, created by Rethink, Art Directed by my brother-in-law, Andrew. Cheap, effective, illegal. Not the type of graffiti you might expect, but satisfies the definition. Go guerilla marketing!

    Sorry if this lands you in the slammer Andrew.

  23. dougbrowncreative November 25, 2010 at 11:52 am #

    That’s a good one Jody, thanks for sharing it and getting your bro-in-law fired. Roger’s was dishing out some of that medicine earlier this year. You can see how they wasted the opportunity here:

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