Get out of my face

January 18th, 2008
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It is the sign of a sick mind. Whenever I see an Italian word ending in “i”, like graffiti or macaroni, I often think of an old Wayne and Shuster sketch about Julius Caesar. You may be curious to know the actual title was “Rinse the Blood off my Toga”.

Anyway, it’s remembered mostly for the whining Mrs. Caesar repeating the line “If I told him once, I told him a thousand times; Julie don’t go!”
What stuck with me was the bit where the Roman detective (played by Wayne) is in a watering hole and pulls up a stool for a drink. The exchange with the bartender goes something like this:

Bartender: “What can I get you … Martini?
Detective: “No, make it a Martinus. I’m on duty, can’t have more than one”.

And all this just to segue into a discussion on graffiti. I saw a van driving through downtown the other day advertising graffiti removal. I won’t hesitate to say that I did an immediate mental thumbs up while imagining such cleaning of the urban landscape.

This brought to mind a conversation with a family member (R.W., if you’re reading this) on the topic of graffiti. Boiled down, and not surprisingly, my view was that it was vandalism, his that it was necessary artistic expression. I further investigated his premise by reading the two next links.

They made me think. The graffiti, or “street art” as the case may be, is meant at the very least as an artistic statement, often with a political dimension. There is a strong component of free speech or expression underlying the pro-graffiti argument. Not to mention a subversive aspect of the anonymous “little guy” railing against the system.

I guess I would ground my reply in the concept of property rights. I don’t think anyone’s right to self expression trumps my right to keep my property pristine. There might be an argument for defacing public property because the defacer is “co-owner”. Then you may revert to a utilitarian argument of the benefit of “art” and self-expression trumping the disapproval or aesthetic sensitivity of others.

It won’t surprise readers that I don’t really by that either. To me, the behaviour necessary to maintain a civil society precludes pushing one’s self-expression into others’ faces. I personally think that includes dress, hair, sharp metal appendages, maybe even bumper-stickers. Why should one person have the right to give everyone the aesthetic “finger” as it were and us not have the right to give it right back- in spades?

There is a question of degree – from a t-shirt to a two-inch nose ring to a massive garish mural or spray-painted rail car. The argument gets escalated when the graffitos argue that their “right” precludes aggressive measures to expunge their work. Isn’t that an expression of a “right” too? Despite the so-called subversive nature, like drawing a moustache on the queen’s portrait (or Mickey Mouse ears on George Bush, as one of the street artists has done), there seems to be real indignation amongst the defacers when their work is removed.

Kind of like the protesters at the G-8 eager to brag about inhaling teargas but angry when they actually get gassed. On one level this art is not much more permanent than sandcastles or sidewalk chalk anyway – so why, other than ego, demand it be preserved?

Appreciation being in the eye of the beholder, you can judge for yourself whether you prefer a sand sculpture or 40 foot high spray painted hieroglyphics by Blade, Dondi, Seen or Skeme. On the other hand, I can turn my head away from a building. It’s tougher averting my eyes from the quarter inch silver stud on the bobbing lips of my barrista.

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