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Published: Monday, 8/6/2007

Painter's petition aims to legalize city graffiti areas

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Artist Jerry Gray is circulating a petition to create designated public areas for graffiti artists in downtown Toledo.
Artist Jerry Gray is circulating a petition to create designated public areas for graffiti artists in downtown Toledo.
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Artists have been influencing and inspiring each other since the days of stick figures on cave walls.

In a more modern twist, one Toledo painter s reference to a satirical street-graffiti image has inspired another artist, Jerry Gray, to launch a petition drive to set up designated graffiti areas for spray-can and mural painting on some downtown alleyways and buildings.

It s illegal in Toledo to paint any type of mural on a building s surface without submitting the proposed work to a review process. Much of the most elaborate graffiti in the city remains somewhat hidden from view, tucked in places such as roadway overpasses.

I really see [graffiti] as one of the more contemporary two-dimension art forms, said Mr. Gray, 30, a visual artist and co-owner of Quest For Fire Studios. I m just trying to get it out there in the public eye.

Since he began circulating the petitions in late June, Mr. Gray said he has collected more than 700 signatures. His goal is to have 5,000 signatures before year s end, when he expects to submit the petition to Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo), and Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop.

Gaining support no doubt will be a challenge. Graffiti is a politically charged word sometimes associated with gang activity and urban decay, said Adam Russell, coordinator of Art In Public Places for the Arts Commission of Greater Toledo.

The notion of legalized graffiti may make even graffiti artists cringe. Many embrace their art form as lawless rebellion.

People will mark on that wall, but it s not going to be a true graffiti artist, said Julia Moore, an Indianapolis-based public art administrator.

Nevertheless, Ms. Moore noted that cities throughout the country have set up sanctioned graffiti walls at one time or another, including Indianapolis.

Similar to building skate parks to curb illegal skateboarding, graffiti zones often are envisioned by civic leaders as ways to contain a graffiti problem rather than expanding painters visibility.

It s one thing to recognize [graffiti art] if it arises naturally, Ms. Moore said. But it s another if you re trying to spur that.

Mr. Gray traces his inspiration for the petition effort to a painting that hangs on the sixth floor of Secor Studios, 425 Jefferson Ave., where he keeps his own studio.

In the picture, a shaggy-haired figure appears to stare out toward a wall scrawled with graffiti flourishes. Stenciled in a thick, stark, governmental-type font near the wall s center is the label Designated Graffiti Area, followed by a mock city code number.

The painting is the work of Mr. Russell, 25, who explained that the graffiti area tag is a reference to the work of a renowned British graffiti painter. That artist, known as Banksy, has famously stenciled such spray-here markings in places where graffiti is not actually permitted, creating impromptu but unsanctioned public art space.

Help art tourism

Graffiti areas could help beautify the dismal sight of vacant buildings and downtown storefronts, and help attract art tourism, Mr. Gray said.

You will have people who come here to paint, and you will have people who come here to see it, he said.

Myela Slattery, exhibition coordinator at Space 237, 237 North Michigan St., said the downtown gallery regularly shows exhibits featuring elements of street culture.

There s a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to graffiti and the urban arts, she said. We re trying to open the eyes of viewers, to help them see that what they see going by on trains is an art. Unsolicited art, but an art.

Andrew Appold, 33, helped organize a group of about a dozen artists four years ago to create a large and elaborate graffiti mural in an alley at the back of 136 North Huron St., a building Mr. Appold s family owns.

The city s Neighborhood Beautification Action Team has two seasonal workers to handle graffiti complaints, and last summer they painted over the Huron Street building s wall-size piece with paint described by city officials as chain-smoke gray.

We had numerous complaints concerning that, Willie Perryman, manager in the city s neighborhoods departments, said of the alleyway artwork. There were different interpretations of whether that was a mural or just graffiti. We interpreted it as not being a mural, and we just aggressively went after the complaint.

My heart just sank

Yet many of Toledo s street art enthusiasts were sad to see the mural go.

It just gave a sense of vibrancy to a dark alley, recalled Mark Folk, executive director of the arts commission. When I saw that it was gone, my heart just sank.

The disappearance spurred an effort that led this spring to a new city approval process for murals that would be regulated by the arts commission. The process involved forming a review committee to approve the murals.

But according to Mr. Gray, this process is too cumbersome for the sort of spontaneous creativity that would happen in a designated graffiti and mural zone. More appropriate for maintaining order, he said, would be a committee headed by people knowledgeable in urban arts who could establish and enforce decency standards in graffiti areas.

In addition, Mr. Gray said that artists who use the graffiti areas could be required to take out city street performer s licenses, which cost $20 each.

You want to be culturally diverse, but not offensive just to be offensive, he said.

Toledo police have so far this year arrested and charged four individuals with first-degree misdemeanors for graffiti, all of which investigators believe was gang-related, said Lt. Brad Weis. Gangs commonly put graffiti on telephone poles, signs, houses, and other buildings to mark territory or threaten other gangs, he said.

Mr. Perryman said that about half of the graffiti the city s cleanup crew sees is gang-related. The rest, he said, is pretty articulate.

Most of it that s articulate is real high on buildings, he said. Whoever the artist is, they really want people to see it.

A common problem with graffiti walls is that the graffiti soon starts leaking to surrounding buildings, fences, and utility poles, according to Mr. Russell, of the arts commission.

Time and time again, you see that it was a great idea until it leaked off the wall.

Some sour endings

The Web site nograffiti.com, which bills itself as a resource for combating graffiti vandalism, publishes reports on some sanctioned graffiti walls in cities across the country. Many of the articles, including one about a wall in San Fernando Valley, Calif., have sour endings:

The sanctioned wall not only caused damage to other walls and trees on the same property, but to every building or structure within a mile of the wall, the Web site reported. It was a magnet for every untalented writer.

To give graffiti areas a better chance of political success in Toledo, Mr. Russell suggested that they be renamed and expanded to include a larger variety of art, such as painting and poetry.

I don t think it should be limited to graffiti, he said. I only know a handful of graffiti writers in Toledo, whereas I know plenty of artists.

Contact JC Reindl at:jreindl@theblade.comor 419-724-6050.



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