For many people, graffiti is a symbol of blight, gangs and sinking property values. But to Tim Power of North Hollywood, graffiti is simply art.
"It's a very expressive and original art form. It's not something to be put down; there are a lot of talented young people in Los Angeles who are graffiti artists," he said.
Power, 25, is the publisher of Can Control, a triennial, 23-page magazine that showcases multicolored, often illegal, spray-painted designs from around the world. His 5-year-old publication has a circulation of 5,000, and subscribers live as far away as Australia and Yugoslavia, but most of the readers and the graffiti he shows are in the Los Angeles area.
The magazine is sold at music and comic book stores throughout Los Angeles, as well as in other major cities where graffiti art is either becoming popular or running rampant, depending on your outlook.
"It sells out fairly quickly when we get it," said Jon Barbee of Golden Apple Comics in Northridge. "The buyers are usually kids between the ages of 15 and 19 who look like they're involved in graffiti. But, surprisingly, their parents often come with them when they buy it."
And, according to Power, interest in Can Control also extends beyond those involved in graffiti art. "Some of the retailers who sell it say it's often bought by civilians, or those who don't do graffiti art."
Can Control, which sells for $4 a copy, features photographs of urban art fresh from the spray can, usually taken by Power or sent to him from subscribers. He also writes the interviews with artists in which they discuss their art philosophies, and new sections on comic art and music have been added as Power tries to appeal to his readers' interests.
Without a background in magazine publishing, Power has had to learn by doing as his magazine went from a black-and-white newsprint tabloid to a glossy four-color publication last year. He says he turns a profit, an achievement in a slumping industry, but he makes his money generally through subscription and newsstand sales, not advertising.
"The money comes in, but there's often a delay, and it's hard to manage the flow," he said. "There's usually about six advertisers per issue, selling comics or records, and I'm trying to increase the amount of advertising. I've also started selling T-shirts and sweat shirts with our Can Control logo on them through the magazine."
If there's a message in Can Control, it's that there's a difference between graffiti art and other forms of graffiti. "The biggest problem we have is proving that we're separate from the gangs, and we're also separate from the taggers," Power said.
According to Power, gang graffiti, which often marks out territories, and tagging, in which someone spray-paints a name on virtually any blank surface they can find, gets lumped together with those who use cans of Krylon to be creative.
"The kids who really want to be artists need some support from the community and their peers. The artists I know of don't paint on homes, schools, churches or other private property. They are not gang members and they shouldn't be treated like criminals."
Others, however, would rather see the readers of Can Control under police control.
"I don't care whether it's a beautiful mural or someone's name, if it's not put up legally, with permission, it's vandalism," said Hannah Dyke, president of the Sylmar Graffiti Busters, a grass-roots organization of Sylmar residents and business owners that opposes all forms of graffiti. "If they're not defacing private property, they're defacing public property, which belongs to everyone. Our tax dollars have to be spent cleaning it up."
Power contends that while some of the graffiti he photographs and publishes has been painted illegally, the artists he works with are interested in finding legitimate places to work. "I've been to meetings of the city's Cultural Arts Commission on graffiti art and you'd be surprised by the number of kids who show up wanting more legal outlets for their art."
At present, the commission has authorized two sites near downtown Los Angeles where graffiti artists can work: the Belmont Tunnel at 1st and Glendale streets and the corner of Sunset and Santa Monica boulevards.
"The problem is that you have kids who say they're graffiti artists and they'll use the legal sites, then they'll go out and vandalize a building," said Jay Beswick, founder of the National Graffiti Information Network, a consulting organization for community groups based in Encino. "It's hard to see someone as a legitimate artist if they're vandalizing."
Perhaps the biggest question in the controversy is whether the murals, designs and slogans created by the graffiti artists are art, since it may be that one person's art is another's vandalism.