Asheville graffiti sparks debate: art or vandalism

By Olivia Patterson – [email protected] – Contributor | March 4, 2015 |
Despite being nationally renowned by publications such as Forbes, Frommer’s and USA Today for its highly artistic atmosphere, Asheville residents continue to debate whether their city’s abundant graffiti is art or vandalism.
“Art is a social practice, which means that it is a form of communication with others. An
object or performance must be seen and experienced by someone else in order for that
communication to happen, so art needs an audience to be art,” said Leisa Rundquist, associate professor of art history and department chair of art and art history at UNC Asheville.
Rundquist has a rich background in art, including a Ph.D. in art history with specialty in modern and contemporary art and theory from UNC Chapel Hill, and said she views the graffiti debate issue as relative.
“Artists are also part of society, which has social contracts involving commonly held ethics and morals. Repercussions come with breaking these laws and social contracts. Sometimes artistic interventions are necessary to challenge precedents and commonly held beliefs. They can be a good, progressive gestures, but they can also have negative effects,” Rundquist said.
The city of Asheville instated a graffiti ordinance on Oct. 1 and has since responded to 230 reported incidents of graffiti, according to Vicky Haskell, a special projects coordinator heavily involved in efforts to rid the city of graffiti.
“Within the public works department, we do not determine whether the graffiti is art or vandalism. We only identify properties, whether they be public or private, which have been tagged,” said Chad Bandy, Asheville’s street services manager.
Bandy’s responsibilities for the street division of public works in Asheville include street and sidewalk maintenance, tree care and downtown beautification.
“Art is in the eye of the beholder. As far as graffiti is concerned, it is not for us to determine that,” Bandy said.
Graffiti and street art have the power to majorly impact society and culture, according to Rundquist.
“Graffiti has the potential to enhance areas of a city. Socially, it can signal urban blight and economic depression. Some scholars acknowledge street art, like anonymous or guerrilla-
type productions by Banksy that have a social message or commissioned public work, as a way
to differentiate kinds of creative expressions in public places,” Rundquist said. “An example of this type of street art in Asheville would be the murals at Moog. Street art is considered to be desirable for either social or aesthetic reasons, while graffiti is often viewed as vandalism. Some forms of art are valued, and some are maligned.”
In terms of the process of reporting graffiti for removal, Haskell said Asheville has an efficient method in place.
“If the property owner has not used the incentive program, they can call the graffiti hotline and report it. Once it is reported, whether or not they used the incentive program, the property owner can choose to hire one of the city’s pre-approved contractors or they can hire their own contractor,” Haskell said. “Once the job is complete, it will be inspected and the contractor will be paid up to $500 for the removal of the graffiti.”
According to Haskell, there are several methods of cleaning graffiti, with the most common remedy being painting over the graffiti.
“If the graffiti is on a non-paintable surface, such as brick or stone, the method of cleaning is either a media blaster or a chemical application and pressure washer. The time it takes for any of these processes depends on the size, location, method used, chemicals applied and weather conditions,” Haskell said.
According to Rundquist, art and creativity have certainly found a home in Asheville, but
graffiti’s negative connotations result in a lack of acceptance compared to other forms of expression. She said that creativity has no limits, but society does, which can create difficulties for artists.
“Artists are part of society, and their artistic practices may or may not conform to laws and customs. Artists can offend us, make us think differently, break the law, et cetera. Some of that is deemed good, some bad. These offenses, laws and social customs change over time, so they are not absolute,” Rundquist said “What was shocking in the past is no longer shocking, and what is illegal today may be legal in the future.”