Deep inside the city’s bureaucracy, a man is concocting a plan. He has been given the task of eradicating graffiti on the walls of Reykjavík. I have spoken to this man, who requested to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation on behalf of the city’s street artists. During our conversation, he told me about his plans for the “war on graffiti.” He used these exact words – repeatedly, which to me sounded an awful lot like the ever-popular “war on drugs” or the “war on terror” for that matter. Spawning images in my mind of heavily-(paint)-armed and mobile units of city workers, conducting seek and destroy cleansing missions and sweep-up operations, while the insurgents, the guerrilla like street artists scurry along in the shadows, hiding among the pedestrians, armed to the teeth with their spray cans and cardboard stencils, waiting for the opportunity to stick one to the man where it hurts the most. On the white walls of his city.
His plans are based on a zero tolerance approach. No graffiti is to be tolerated. All walls should be kept clean. Thus creating a city where you will actually be shocked to see graffiti on a wall instead of utterly indifferent. He aims to kill – this type of culture. He has several ideas on how to realise his vision of a squeaky clean city. At one point in our discussion he broached a ban on selling spray cans to people under the age of 20, and fines for property owners who don’t clean or paint over graffiti on their buildings. At the time, this sounded like a bad joke. Until I found out that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has just passed a law that goes to the same measures. At that point, it stopped being a bad joke and became more of a frightening scenario. The key element in his plan is the 24-48 hour clean-up. That is, certain areas will be held under close surveillance so that whenever graffiti emerges on a wall, it will be removed or painted over with in the next 24-48 hours, depending on location. His belief is that if the street artists are faced with an all-out attack, they will eventually give up. Now, that logic has proven infallible in recent warfare, hasn’t it?
Let’s get down to the nuts and bolts – the fiscal matters. What are we talking about, bottom line? How much green is his plan likely going to cost? From the horse’s mouth, no less. I guess during times of war, there is always the penchant to spend big. This plan is thought of in terms of years, more precisely, three to five years, after which graffiti should be an almost non-existent occurrence and easily containable on those rare occasions. We are talking about gradual increases in spending, starting with a modest budget, redoubled annually. Bottom line? 500 million ISK given that this plan drags out for the full five-year period. Annual average of 100 million ISK. And you just know how wars tend to drag on.
Folks, that is a half a billion ISK. Can we put that number in any sort of perspective? My son attends the newly built day care centre Hlíðaborg (2003). The building project cost the city of Reykjavík a whopping total of 33 million. We are talking the costs of building 10-15 new day care centres. We are talking about money that we could spend on improving public transportation; we are talking about money that could be spent on improving the quality of life for the citizens of Reykjavík, young and old. We are talking about money that is going to be spent on paint, over and over again. Does this make any sense?
Let’s look at the motives. Why would we want to eradicate graffiti? One of the more common rationalizations is that it is filthy. The city would look so much cleaner and more beautiful if we could get all the damn walls clean. That is one opinion. An opinion that not everyone shares. Another way is to look at graffiti as expression. Graffiti is art. An open art form in which everybody can engage. An exhibition becomes untangled from the constraints of an art gallery and the street becomes the rudimentary showroom. An art form free of the hypocritical admiration for the artist, as the artist remains unknown to most. Art for the sake of art. I can’t remember the last time I visited a gallery. But I appreciate art every time I walk down Laugavegur. I marvel at the handwork, the hidden messages, the poetry of the street. Of course, not all graffiti is good street art, some of it is really naïve, simplistic and unoriginal, but the same goes for every other art form known to man. Who am I to decide who is an artist and who is not? I guess nobody explained this better than the British street artist Banksy: “Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw wherever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colours and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a living, breathing thing which belonged to everybody, not just estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet.” I guess what I am trying to say is, how does your preference for a city void of graffiti outweigh my preference for a city filled with street art?
Another frequent objection is that street art is mere vandalism, damage done to private property. The street, however, is not private property. The street belongs to you and me. It is a public place, and should be left to the public to decorate as the public sees fit. Why should I not get to influence what my street, what my city, looks like? Leave the commons to the common. I will debate this issue with you; I will even admit to a certain understanding to your viewpoint. But not to the tune of half a billion ISK of the city’s funds. Hell no.
When I sat there, listening to a man running a war on graffiti, I was reminded of the movie Footloose. Some of you may remember: Kevin Bacon stars as a young man who moves to a small town where the officials believe that dancing will lead to the demise and the disintegration of society. Shake a leg and watch the whole fabric of society come loose at the seams. It is the exact same judgmental viewpoint where a whole aspect of our cultural landscape falls victim to the narrow-mindedness of people who believe they are better equipped to make decisions for the rest of us. It sounds Tipper Gore-ish.
This whole mentality is wrong on so many levels that my cognitive skills simply fail to comprehend it. In the end, I get the feeling that this will end like one of those campaigns against drugs. Such as the “Drug-free Iceland in 2002” campaign, which started during the 1990s and became a complete and utter failure at the stroke of midnight on December 31, 2001. If you really want to do something about graffiti, take 500 million and spend it on arts education in schools. That way, at least we will see an improvement in the street art.