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Graffiti: Art Form or Vandalism? : Expression: Officials in O.C. and elsewhere wrestle to find a way to let the 'aerosol art' continue while controlling the other work--often gang related.


Huntington Beach officials are agonizing over it. Los Angeles' Cultural Arts Commission is wrestling with it. Orange County officials aren't aware of it.

The issue is the growing Southland debate over the distinction--if there is one--between graffiti art and graffiti vandalism, and how--if at all--to preserve one while eliminating the other.

"All cities have an obligation to ensure that there are public spaces for what is one of the most vibrant and interesting art forms in Southern California," said Michael Davis, an architect and author who has written about Southern California urban-design issues.

"Almost anyone would recognize the difference between graffiti art and the simple tag," Davis said.

Huntington Beach is apparently the only city in Orange County that allows aerosol artists to paint in certain areas, despite laws on the books that make graffiti illegal. But while city officials seem to acknowledge that there is a difference between so-called "aerosol art" and simple spray-can vandalism, they are wrestling to find a way to let the art continue while controlling the other graffiti that are often gang related. That's no simple task, said Ron Hagan, the city's director of community services.

"The problem is (that as) soon as you allow someone to write on a public wall, how do you tell someone else they can't write on the wall--or on the port-a-potty right next to it?" Hagan said this week.

Orange County staff handling graffiti cleanup in flood control channels and county buildings and facilities, in addition to one official associated with a special committee concerned with graffiti, said no such line is drawn. That is, when they see graffiti, they clean up the graffiti.

"When I looked into the graffiti issue and how we were handling it, that (distinction) never arose, so I'm not sure anything could be characterized as art," said Robert Sayers, manager of the Environmental Management Agency's management services, which did the research for a county committee studying cheaper methods of graffiti eradication.

That viewpoint is shared by many city officials throughout the county. "All graffiti, regardless if it is artistic or otherwise, is removed," said Ed Green, assistant superintendent of public works for San Juan Capistrano.

Complicating the matter even further is a belief by some who work with gangs that to legitimize distinctions between aerosol artists and vandals would only serve to exacerbate underlying social problems.

Because graffiti are illegal, officials should be looking at what causes youths to engage in illegal activities--however artistic their expressions may be, said one Southern California arts administrator who works with gang members and who asked not to be identified.

"We're not addressing the problems the kids are facing," said the administrator. Citizens and city officials should be looking at "finding out how disenfranchised people can find a way to work within the system."

Architect Michael Davis thinks the answer might be found if "the system" were to embrace aerosol artists. "There are a lot of derelict and unused public spaces that could be brightened and enlightened."

Further, Devon Brewer, a UC Irvine graduate student who has studied the retaining walls in Huntington Beach and advised city officials, asserts that aerosol art is a positive alternative to drugs and gang violence that "saves lives."

"It's nice to have a wall around here because you can express your art form to a whole different branch of people and help graffiti art get accepted more," said aerosol artist Drez, who preferred not to give his last name, a 19-year-old Orange Coast College student who paints on concrete seawalls along the coast in Huntington Beach.

There have even been gallery exhibitions of aerosol art, one of which opened at the Mexican Museum in San Francisco this May. Walls in Los Angeles, Long Beach and other cities have been set aside for the colorful outdoor artwork.

Recently, the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs began a new program to try to define differences between graffiti art and what nearly anyone would classify as criminal defacing of property, public or private. Next month, department officials will hold a conference to seek common ground--or at least ways to find it--between graffiti artists and graffiti abaters to find ways to provide legal spaces for street artists.

One solution proposed in Huntington Beach would involve a sort of "public exhibition space," Hagan said, in which painting would be allowed only on removable canvases hung along the retaining walls, which stand between Pacific Coast Highway and the surf and stretch north of the pier for nearly a mile.

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