Culture clash over 'graffiti art'

By Julie Jacobson

A group of architects has attacked plans by Wellington City Council to clamp down on graffiti, saying it adds to the character of the city and should be left alone.

The council wants to set up a rapid response anti-graffiti "flying squad" to tackle what it says is "a problem Wellington takes seriously". The squad would be trialled for a year, at a cost of $225,000.

But some of the capital's architects and designers say graffiti - including tagging, bombing and stencil art - provides important community and political commentary and should be encouraged.

Members of the Wellington Architecture Centre argue that graffiti contributes to the city's urban life, and to its branding as the "creative capital".

There were many examples of "politically astute, insightful and informed commentary, as well as some beautiful underground artwork" around Wellington, said Christine McCarthy, the centre's president and senior lecturer at the School of Architecture.

A small lane in downtown Wellington, between Ghuznee St and Cuba St's Left Bank, widely known as "graffiti alley", was a particularly rich site for cutout, stencil and graffiti art.

"There's some very clever work there. It makes viewers think or see the world differently... it is not something that can be controlled."

She cited the work of Britain's Banksy, leader of a worldwide "guerilla art" movement, as graffiti-gone-good.

His art began as street art but now demands prices of up to $1 million, selling to celebrities such as Angelina Jolie and Christina Aguilera.

This year, graffiti removal teams - similar to the one planned in Wellington - were harangued for painting over two of his murals. A spokesman for one of the companies involved said his staff were "professional cleaners not professional art critics".

Tagging costs Wellington around $100,000 a year to clean up. The latest quality of living survey shows 59 per cent of residents are concerned about it. But that's nothing compared with Manukau City, where the council's annual bill for cleaning up tagging is close to $1.5 million. Its 30-strong graffiti team removed more than 330,000 tags in the past year.

Graffiti team head Graeme Bakker said there was an enormous difference between "graffiti art" and tagging.

"One can be quite remarkable at times, the other is pure vandalism. So long as it's done with permission, intelligence and respect, then there's no problem. The key thing is permission."

Cleaning was expensive and time-consuming, but research showed tagging had a major effect on feelings of safety and discouraged economic investment. The city has proposed an anti-graffiti bill, which would impose fines of up to $2500, regulate the sale and display of spray paint in cans and give police powers to get information from and to arrest taggers.

Council planner Yu Yi said current deterrents, which included fines of up to $200, had failed to solve the problem.

"The law as it stands is fairly weak. Graffiti is perceived as a petty crime, but it actually has a huge social and economic impact on communities."

Bakker said Manukau's young population exacerbated the problem. "It's a copycat thing. Tagging is basically about leaving a mark. It's about saying, 'I have an identity'."

The city wanted to educate taggers and provide outlets for their creativity, rather than "[beat] them within an inch of their lives".

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