D.C. mural jam aims to create positive venue for graffiti art

By Martin Ricard
, Washington Post Staff Writer
The Washington Post
August 20, 2009

As the 20-year-old graffiti artist stood in broad daylight Saturday morning and aimed his spray paint at a concrete retaining wall behind the Rhode Island Avenue Shopping Center, the pleasant greeting of a passerby startled him.

He nervously put down the paint can and looked over his shoulder. For the past couple of weeks, he had been tagging his alias, AERA, throughout the area at night, with no one around to catch him in the act or disrupt his creative flow.

“Okay,” the artist said he thought to himself as he resumed his work, “this is a little weird.”

But on this day, spray-painting graffiti on public property, an act that would have been against the law any other time, was all good. It was part of a “mural jam,” a city-sponsored project that drew dozens of graffiti artists to contribute their flair to a nearly 1,000-foot-long wall turned canvas in Northeast’s Edgewood community.

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Artists work on the nearly 1,000-foot-long wall in Northeast's Edgewood community that is serving as a concrete canvas for the "mural jam," sponsored by the Commission on the Arts and Humanities. (Megan Rossman/The Washington Post)

The goal of the project is to beautify the city and dissuade youths from engaging in illegal graffiti. But it represents a broader shift in thinking among the city’s political and art establishments, which are beginning to learn how to coexist with a graffiti culture that has thrived for years.

“We decided that just painting over [graffiti] with one color was not the answer,” said Gloria Nauden, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which authorized the murals. “You have to embrace them as artists, give them freedom. It’s about the respect and allowance of not being defined.”

From when tags began to show up scrawled across buildings and other public property in the District in the 1970s, the city has been struggling to find ways to eradicate what has long been viewed as vandalism.

The city has been forceful in its attempt to crack down on graffiti, including beefing up its graffiti abatement program in the Public Works Department and tracking down and arresting taggers. But like weeds sprouting through pavement, graffiti artists, many of them young people striving to claim a unique identity, have managed to survive.

Instead of viewing the graffiti artists as enemies, city officials have caught on to the idea of embracing them.

It started last year with MuralsDC, a $100,000 city-funded project spearheaded by D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) that connected teenagers with well-known graffiti artists to paint murals throughout the city to cover areas hardest hit by taggers. The underlying belief in the program was that by incorporating the graffiti artists in the creation of the murals, young people would be reluctant to participate in illegal tagging.

The efforts seem to have made a dent, Nauden said. Last fiscal year, the Public Works Department reported 1,948 incidents of graffiti on the buildings it monitors, spokeswoman Nancee Lyons said. This fiscal year, as of June, the department had received 695 incident reports, a significant decline.

“I don’t know whether we can attribute it all to the mural project,” Lyons said. “But it seems to be making a bit of a difference.”

With the expansion of the city-funded, graffiti-inspired mural projects, the District joins cities including Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles that have incorporated graffiti into their public art landscapes.

Graffiti experts say such programs are an important first step because, although many have viewed tagging as a social ill, taggers themselves, part of the ever-evolving hip-hop culture, have often viewed themselves as artists. Or, as they like to refer to themselves, “writers.”

“Essentially, it will desensitize people to the idea that it is an art form, not something you just see scribbled on the side of a building,” said Dominic Painter, executive director of Midnight Forum, a hip-hop-influenced youth group that specializes on the arts in the District. Painter also heads up MuralsDC, which has been expanded.

Projects such as the Edgewood mural not only bring life back to communities riddled with blight, some say, but they also show youths what they can aspire to become.

While Pose 2, one of the artists involved in the Edgewood mural, was taking a break Saturday, he spoke candidly about his passion for graffiti. Just past the tracks of the Metro Red Line station, he could see in plain view the numerous abandoned buildings coated with elaborate graffiti. Although it is illegal, Pose said, the graffiti reminds him of his roots in Yonkers, N.Y., where he got his start as a graffiti artist.

He now sells his art in galleries for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars. Pose 2 pointed to the city-sponsored mural, part graffiti, part intergalactic mosaic.

“The young people here,” he said, “they can see the evolution.”

But not all of the graffiti artists have bought into the goals of the program.

“I just like the illegal kind a lot more,” AERA said. “Just the adrenaline and being out on a rooftop.”

There will never be enough murals to cover all the nooks and crannies taggers eventually find to spray-paint their pieces, some youths said.

But Painter said the main goal of the mural projects is to spread understanding of the art. Such understanding can encourage city officials to fund more programs that allow youths to express their identities creatively, he said, and it also can persuade youths to respect the artwork and realize that when they take ownership in a mural created by fellow graffiti artists, they also take ownership in their city.

“One kid might hit 10 to 20 walls,” Painter said. “But if you get to that one student, that problem’s abated right there.”

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