Published on February 21st, 2012 | by Ben Armstrong3
How Tacoma’s Graffiti Garages Redefine Graffiti Art
*Many of the artists interviewed wanted to remain anonymous, and therefore their names have been excluded.*
“That’s tight!” said a man passing by a graffiti mural in downtown Tacoma. “Have you checked out the Graffiti Garages?” he asked, unknowingly directing his query to the Tacoma Arts Administrator who worked to open the Garages. “I have not heard of that but I will check that out,” Amy McBride humbly responded, glad that Tacoma residents were reacting positively to the opening of a legal space for graffiti.
Historically, graffiti has caused conflict between private landowners and the artists using their wall space as a canvas. Despite their support for the Garages, the City of Tacoma’s statement about graffiti still states that “it generates neighborhood fear, causes instability, signals an increase in crime, lowers property values, hurts business revenue, is economically detrimental to the City, and is a sign of urban decay.”
Despite this long-standing hostility towards graffiti as an inherently negative artform associated with violence and crime, certain private landowners and city officials like McBride have looked to provide legal outlets for graffiti artists. Opening the Graffiti Garages, or “The Garages”, on Broadway in downtown Tacoma, was the flagship project representing this attitude shift.
The shift toward accepting graffiti as more than a blight upon the urban landscape has a national precedence. The modern graffiti art movement first evolved in Philadelphia and New York in conjunction with the hip-hop movement. Graffiti expanded across the US and to the West Coast in general in the 70s and early 80s, when east coast hip-hop styles reached Los Angeles.
Though people often associate it with illegal art, graffiti began to appear in New York art galleries in the 80s, bringing its popularity beyond poor urban neighborhoods. Many artists now focus on the art aspect of graffiti’s style and look to legal avenues to promote their artwork, avoiding the illegalities commonly associated with graffiti.
On walls and spaces where artists work legally, they often roll or “buff” the walls before painting to get a clearer image. They also use specialized colors, spray cans, and caps designed for using aerosol for art. Now, artists often insist on paying for the best materials, whereas traditional graffiti artists tended to steal low-grade aerosol cans.
Many communities are realizing that it is not just funding but wall space that legal artists need. In the past, artists who wanted to make a career of their art had to do so by abandoning the graffiti style, but now many private wall owners and public entities allow and even commission artists to create murals.
Even as graffiti gains increased public acceptance and academic recognition, such as through the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2011 exhibition Art in the Street, tension between legal and illegal graffiti remains.
Graffiti in Tacoma
When the Graffiti Garages were first opened, the Tacoma Arts Commission hired the “Fab Five” (a legal graffiti group) to paint murals on walls commonly tagged by illegal artists. The Tacoma Arts Commission saw the Garages as a means for creating more opportunities for the arts, diversify Tacoma, build trust in the larger community, and define a space where people have the freedom to create legal graffiti in Tacoma.
The City of Tacoma partnered with the private owner of the Garages to get the project running successfully. The owner loves the new artistic additions and changed the parking from long term parking to short-term parking so that more could appreciate them.
To initially convince the City of Tacoma to entertain the idea of an open forum graffiti garage, McBride fended off the City’s complaints that an open garage would foster gang activity. She described how the vision of “The Garages” promotes a mentoring community where artists can meet and collaborate legally to promote their style of art.
At first, the City’s fears appeared to come true when profane gang tags appeared shortly after the Garages opened, causing the City to close the space. However, the public responded with frustration that such an opportunity would be taken away from Tacoma and McBride again worked to re-open the Garages back. With the second opening, the Fab Five was commissioned to paint “The Garages” on the outside wall facing the street to notify people that it was a legal place for art. Signs in the Garages notify artists that they can only paint on Sundays and prohibits customers from parking on those days so artists can have the whole garage. This allows artists to collaborate on large elaborate projects in the light of day. The Garages have grown to be a huge success as the artists self-police, covering up unwanted tags and producing better and better work as time goes on.
Graffiti has long been associated with gang activity even though graffiti artists, taggers, and gang members typically came from distinct groups. The association arose from gang members commissioning tags of the gang’s name in exchange for protection of the artist. The marking of gang territory and the promotion of a tag name led to the concept of possession and ownership to become a core value in graffiti culture.
This promoted the idea that, to receive stature, individuals should try to tag their name as much as possible and when covering another piece, the new piece must surpass the one being covered. Over time, the emphasis on promoting one’s name with the quantity of tags dwindled as artists sought to gain recognition through the quality of their art by executing evermore elaborate and detailed works.
Garage Culture Themes
Many of the universal unwritten codes among writers have extended to the Tacoma Graffiti Garages, creating a successful self-policing environment where artists respect each others’ work.
Every artist interviewed stressed the importance of only painting over a piece they could outdo, and since artists write their tag name as their pieces or next to characters, people can be held accountable for their pieces. Similarly, I saw many pieces with temporal significance such as Halloween-themed pieces that disappeared a week after the holiday passed. If someone violates these policies by tagging a piece or doing a poorer piece, there is no formal retribution besides the fact that their name will disappear quickly.
One interviewee said that after being arrested multiple times, he stopped doing graffiti except in the Garages, which he did not like as much but appreciated the outlet where he could continue his artistic hobby safely. If people tag illegally outside the Garages, the quick, illegal tagging cannot compare with the more detailed, time-consuming mural work inside, maintaining the Garages’ professional and attractive quality.
The faux pas of copying others’ letters or styles also comes from greater graffiti culture and the adoption of this unwritten rule by Tacoma artists helps establish order within the Garages. Though a new writer may start by copying the work of others, one artist said that stealing letters “pisses people off” since every artist should develop his or her own type of graffiti, such as characters or letters and crisp or soft edges. This practice adds to the pressure to execute distinct and creative work, which elevates the craft by forcing artists to continually sharpen their skills.
The artists are incentivized to produce their best work so that their effort will be more enduring; one artist showed me one of his characters that was still on the wall after over a month, which I could tell gave him great pride. Etiquette and respect are of utmost importance in the Garages culture because the artists also recognize that the existence of the Garages is not a guarantee.
The Garages have created a consumer and visiting culture that incorporates businesses, Tacoma residents, and even visitors from around the area who do not actively participate in the art aspect. Soon after the opening of the Graffiti Garages, McBride received complaints that the trashcans around the Garages were overflowing with coffee cups and to-go containers along with other waste items making a mess of the area. Rather than taking the news as a problem with the project, McBride was ecstatic that artists and visitors were purchasing items from the surrounding businesses and boosting the economy in the neighborhood.
When the City of Tacoma turned parking on the street to paid parking, it cut down on business and drew people away from the downtown area, but according to an employee at at a nearby store the Garages bring new business and revived the neighborhood.
Witt, a business owner in the area, said he only noticed a small business change but the oportunity provided by the Garages has reduced illegal graffiti in the area, keeping his windows from getting tagged. The City of Tacoma has documented a decline in illegal graffiti in the city as a whole, though this positive change cannot be attributed specifically to the Garages.
Similarly, citizens and businesses use the Garages as a space to promote other artistic mediums. On many Sundays, one garage hosts hip-hop shows and rap battles that attract people to the garage late into the day. The Garages also attract photographers whose photos feature the Garages in modeling, family, and senior photos, modeling photos, and family photos. Professional photographers even market the background as a service to clients.
Rather than still defining graffiti art as a destructive, illegal art, Tacoma residents have welcomed it as an open area for the community that has even become hip to be a part of. Businesses have hired artists from the Garages to paint murals on their walls, and even in places like a dentist office a mural or sign in graffiti is considered trendy. I even saw one marriage proposal piece which could have either been from the artist or perhaps commissioned.
A National Leader
The creation of the Garages has placed Tacoma in the forefront nationally as a city combating illegal graffiti by celebrating and promoting the art form through legal wall space. A New York artist told his friend whom I interviewed that it was good to see a place for graffiti in the City, and that Tacoma was ahead of major cities including New York, one of graffiti’s birthplaces. Similarly, McBride received a call from a police officer from Texas who heard about the project in Tacoma and wanted to know how he could start a similar initiative to combat illegal graffiti in his city.
Though the artists themselves do not regularly concern themselves with whether their art and participation in the Garages promotes a change in attitude towards graffiti, the Garages have influenced how graffiti is viewed by non-graffiti artists in Tacoma, and sparked national inquiry about how to promote graffiti art as an artistic style and culture while reducing illegal graffiti.
Recommended for further reading:
DeMelker, Saskia “‘The History of American Graffiti: From Subway Car to Gallery”
Docuyanan, F.- “Governing Graffiti in Contested Urban Spaces” in PoLAR: Political and Legal Anthropology Review Vol. 23, no. 1 (May 2000), pp. 103-21.
Powers, L. A.- “Whatever Happened to the Graffiti Art Movement?” in The Journal of Popular Culture Vol. 29, no. 4 (Spring 1996), pp. 137-142.