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Art or Vandalism

Does Houston's new Graffiti Mobile put street art in danger?

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Street artists like GONZO247 (right in picture) are recognized as creative pioneers by many artists. Courtesy of 2009 dabfoto creative/David A. Brown
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One man's art is another man's vandalism. Where will Houston draw the line? Photo by Gem Is My Name
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The City of Houston is mobilizing its efforts to eliminate graffiti — literally, with the help of a new "Graffiti Mobile," slated to be unveiled Thursday morning at Montie Beach Park.

The new set of wheels is part of a five-year agreement to remove graffiti that combines political forces, including Mayor Annise Parker, City Council Member Sue Lovell, City Council Member Ed Gonzalez, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia and the Greater East End Management District. The initiative calls into question the future of a vibrant street art community in Houston.

CultureMap contacted resident graffiti proponent GONZO247 of Aerosol Warfare to better understand the bus' potential impact. Not surprisingly, he had heard rumors of the Graffiti Mobile, and was concerned about the amount of money the city is devoting to the anti-street art effort.

"I'm sure the Greater East End Management District, or someone, is getting a huge chunk of change to do this work," he wrote in an e-mail, quoting the street artist adage, "Graffiti creates jobs and you should thank me."

Greater East End Management District president Diane Schenke begs to differ. "We're pretty strong about considering graffiti as a crime," she tells CultureMap. "It defaces private and public property, and is often gang-related." Modeled after an initiative in Cincinnati, the Graffiti Mobile is part of an agreement inked with the city in November.

Since then, the organization has erased 3,000 graffiti sites, many in public parks.

When Aerosol Warfare's education program director, Carolyn Casey, approached City Council about a "re-direction urban art program," the initiative got sidelined, and she was told to drop the idea.

"Awhile back, they [City Council] had a meeting open to the public, and they specifically invited all the art people and us because they said they wanted to discuss the graffiti problem," Casey says. "We thought they were being open to an idea of ours, but they really just called us all there to tell us to tell our friends to stop doing it. They weren't open to new ideas, and said that as long as they're spending money on abatement, they're not going to spend any money on programs.

"But the city's going to continue spending money on abatement if they don't have a real solution for it. We see vandalism as different from art, and they consider them to be one."

When asked about taking professional street artists into consideration for the new five-year agreement, Schenke responds, "We certainly do work with them to find places to do public art and murals. But the way graffiti is used to deface private and public spaces? We don't have a lot of patience for that."

GONZO247 suggests more money be funneled towards productive legal urban art projects as part of CKC StArt's mission to promote street, urban and alternative forms of art as a positive and creative force in communities. He concludes, "If this is the route they want to take and the path they choose for their funds, then I feel like it's a never ending battle we were fighting back 20 years ago. It gets old to us as a graffiti community."

Nevertheless, he respects the City's need to resolve perceived problems. "It's their job to use taxpayers' money as they see fit," GONZO247 says.

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