A colleague and friend allowed me to post here this adventure he recently had with his son. Its first incarnation was as a letter-to-the-editor of our local paper.
Letter to the Editor:
My son Jacob is your average 18-year-old boy, in many respects: restless, impulsive, edgy. He craves excitement and danger; he takes risks that make me crazy. He drives too fast and jumps from too-high rocks into the Ottaquechee River. Jake drives a beat-up Saturn that he chose to spray paint so it looks like a blast from the 60s, adorned with flowers and peace signs. He's gangly and often loud and he likes to wear his pants so you can see his underwear. If he weren't my son, I'd be likely to label him as many others have done in recent years, as a punk, a troublemaker, a druggie.
One other thing: Jake is an artist with a predilection for spray paint. Uh-oh.
So there you have the stereotype. No wonder he was reported to the police when he was seen, bandanna covering his mouth, spraying his art work under the West Hartford bridge, committing, as he was initially charged, with criminal mischief. Write him up, process him, slap him with a fine and community service, make him paint it over--serves the vandal right. Right?
But some elements of Jake's case defy the stereotype under which the police were mistakenly laboring. First, the bridge support which he used for his palette had already been spray-painted with ugly, artless profanity. He covered it over with a colorful, playful, G-rated mural of a dinosaur. Second, Jake sought and obtained permission--he called the Hartford Police Department, who then referred him to the town highway department. Someone there, after hearing Jake's proposal, told him to "go for it." Trouble is, no one will own up to giving this permission now. Admittedly, I am biased. I believe my son when he tells me he got permission, but any savvy reader would ask, "How do you know he was telling the truth?" Unfortunately, our phone's caller ID record doesn't go back far enough to obtain the number he called. The police haven't yet returned my query about their record of calls. However, my son makes a very good point. If he didn't feel he had permission, why would he have been committing this act of "criminal mischief" in broad daylight over a series of several days? He never tried to hide because he felt he had nothing to hide.
Thankfully, after several tense hours of discussion with the police, Jake is no longer facing criminal charges. I am grateful to the Hartford Police Department for putting this incident in context and going beyond the stereotype. However, the matter has been referred to another agency where Jacob and a representative from the highway department will meet. This could result in a judgment forcing Jacob to, at the very least, paint over his work.
I urge two things. First, to the person at the town highway department who spoke to my son, giving him permission--come forward. Second, to everyone: Go see the mural Jacob has painted under the West Hartford bridge. Bring your kids, your grand-kids; they'll enjoy it. Weigh in with the highway department. Let them know, before this meeting takes place, if you think what Jacob created is an act of vandalism perpetrated by some "rebel-without-a-clue" teenager, or actually an improvement to what was there before. Vandalism or spontaneous community service? Help the highway department decide.
Reaction from RR
You know, Paul, I'm amazed by your friend's defense of his son's vandalism. Because that's what it is. If he painted the mural on the side of your house would that be alright? As we old farts say, "in my day" my mother would not have taken my side in defense of my mischief. These kids who spray paint public buildings need another outlet for their creativity. No one has the right to do it and no one has the right to give "permission" to do it. Whether it's good or bad has nothing to do with it. By the way, all of the graffiti I have seen, no matter how good it may be deemed, is like all tattoos, still just bad art.
Am I starting to sound like a Republican?
Well written, anyway.
Well, RR, you accurately characterize yourself as an "old fart," and by referring to yourself that way, you are at least partially acknowledging that your opinion comes more from unreasoned obeisance to petrified personal preferences than from logic.
Your claim that my son's painting was vandalism seems to be based on two criteria: first, that it was on a public building and second, that it was created with spray paint.
To the first point: Surely you've been to cities where intricate murals grace public buildings. These works were not merely done with permission; they were commissioned. Vandalism? And since when does a particular medium patently disqualify something from being legitimate? Calling everything created by spray paint vandalism is tantamount to saying any sound created by a harmonica must be just noise. Surely music can't come from such a gauche instrument!
Finally, while I like your comparison of graffiti to tattoos since they both have a rebellious, underground feel; while I personally dislike most graffiti and I particularly dislike tattoos, I would never be so arrogant as to dismiss all of these creative expressions as "bad art." Who has that right? I teach my students that a truly educated person is able to appreciate something he doesn't personally like. I am sorry to say that you seem to fail in this regard.
Ultimately, however, my son and I are both gratified that you have an opinion about what he created. Art should provoke a response. This did. Thank-you for sharing yours.
By the way, if Jake had asked me if he could paint the mural on the side of my house, and if I had said yes, then of course it would be all right.