A divided West End Traders Association (WETA) last night designed a two pronged strategy to manage graffiti. On one hand the strategy will embrace and promote street art on the other it will vigorously police the defacement of commissioned art and no paint zones that property owners want to keep pristine.
The strategy was developed following a presentation by Brisbane City Council Graffiti Liaison Officer. Wilhelm Offen and a heated discussion between members with radically different views.
Council spends millions each year in an incredibly complex battle with graffiti artists, often out of the public eye, in deserted buildings or public institutions that are not visited by the public. At least three full time staff form a Taskforce Against Graffiti (TAG) that coordinates the efforts of police, Brisbane City Council and private agencies.
Graffiti Liaison Officer Offen described an international network of artists that go on “tagging holidays” where they collectively deface a city, literally giving the police the finger via CCTV cameras set up to catch them red-handed. He described these people as organised criminals, selling drugs and engaged in high level crime such as bank robbery and money laundering.
Members of WETA challenged a number of these assertions, pointing out that without a distinction between street artists defending their right to public expression and ordinary vandals, any policy is bound to fail in the confusion. It was also noted that drug dealers and bank robbers rarely go out of their way to identify themselves to police.
Some business owners described the vandalism to their property, especially the use of rooftops as temporary drug dens complete with mattresses, drug paraphernalia and the subsequent rubbish. Graffiti Liaison Officer Offen said that rooftop tagging presented special challenges to TAG as it is hard to catch the perpetrators, expensive for business owners to respond and, because the graffiti is on private property, impossible for council to buff out the graffiti.
Graffiti Liaison Officer Offen suggested that businesses commission local graffiti artists to use the wall space accessible from their rooftop as advertising space. He has prepared a guide to navigating council rules around advertising, street art and public taste so that businesses are not guilty of the same crimes as the illegal street artists.
This highlighted the absurdity of the Council’s existing zero tolerance approach and formed the basis for one component of the new strategy.
To manage street art and encourage the positive aspects of a public visual culture, WETA will work with businesses and Graffiti Liaison Officer Offen to commission artworks in designated areas. These will initially be on private property and in prominent spaces.
A similar approach will be developed for vacant property that is earmarked for demolition or redevelopment, working with existing and new owners to provide canvasses for street artists and community groups developing and using visual art in public space as part of their expression.
The third arm of the pro-street art strategy will be to provide a series of billboards for public announcements and advertisements. West End Community Association will be approached to manage these spaces and ensure that they are kept up to date and within acceptable guidelines.
Not all business owners support this pro-art strategy. Graffiti Liaison Officer Offen also gave his professional opinion that such strategies have been shown not to work. He accepted, though, that it is better to have community engagement in an experimental strategy than to simply leave Council and police fighting a losing battle with taggers. WETA confirmed that it work within existing bylaws and would not pressure Graffiti Liaison Officer Offen to go outside the professional guidelines of his job.
The other arm of the strategy will be that used elsewhere across Brisbane. TAG will work with local businesses to respond as rapidly as possible to undesirable graffiti, using CCTV footage to identify perpetrators, and buffing over graffiti and removing posters as soon as possible.
Business owners are responsible for dealing with the defacement of their property, council can only deal with paint on public areas such as footpaths, street furniture and council buildings.
A remarkable aspect of the discussion was intensity and volume of the activity that goes on out of the public eye.
- Graffiti Liaison Officer Offen described hundred of graffit artists painting thousands of square metres of publicly owned property within weeks of it being vacated.
- The amount of rooftop activity going on in our community was an eye opener for many WETA members, including this reporter.
- Public complaints by high profile people about commissioned artworks in public spaces presents a large waste of public resources as evidence is collected and documents prepared for formal responses and legal defences about issues which are outside council jurisdiction.
- A number of examples of commissioned art being painted over by Council were raised. In every case a complex story of misinformation and hidden agendas emerged.
The nuanced response developed at this meeting is specifically designed to ensure the maximum engagement of the business and residential community and minimise the problems that emerge when lines and intent of communication are not clear. WETA is to be commended for finding a path through this potential minefield. It may be experimental but, should it work, it could form a blue print for other communities facing the same challenge.
Images courtesy of Jan Bowman and Paul Hey