Community Service (2002)

Filed under: Art Pranks, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Pranksters


Graffiti, in case anyone missed the point, is a marking on a surface. Graffiti eradication is typically the application of paint over the marking of the surface. In terms of “damage,” there is no evidence that one layer of paint is less destructive than the one beneath it. In the course of painting over graffiti, the eradicators create a unique marking of their own that writers call “buffmarks.” Roll along the highways of LA and see thousands of buffmarks, each as visually compelling as the next and the last, each with a story to tell.

The story is this: One person wrote a name to show he was there. Another person was threatened enough by the declaration of existence that he painted over his name. The splotch of paint that covers the name becomes a tag itself. It sits on the wall and testifies to the presence of two people. One person is a so-called criminal, one person is a so-called activist, and both are equal in their need to be recognized. One person has fame but faces jail; one person gets support and accolades from the community but wants fame. The wall could care less about either of them; It just gets fatter with paint.

LA Project 1

Community Service is a project that poses the questions: If graffiti is painted in a way that serves a community is it wrong? And, why aren’t activists that make more of a mess painting over graffiti than the graffiti itself considered criminals?

I volunteered to paint over graffiti around the city, using my own supplies, to exploit the hypocrisy that people who put down one layer of paint are hated while the people who put down the next layer are celebrated. At the same time my mission was to paint my name in a bold and subtle style to demonstrate the effectiveness of getting over in a civic minded way. The answer, I suspected from the start, was the only thing more pointless than painting graffiti is painting over it.

LA Project 5

Graffiti is far from pointless, though. It is an adventure that employs innovation and critical thinking skills all in one stylish line. Painting over it isn’t pointless either; it creates business and opportunities for hundreds of people all over LA.

There is an intense symbiotic relationship between the writers and the buffers, and at the end of the day, if everyone has done his job, One person has created a mark and another has covered it. So it is pointless, except for the decimal amount that graffiti abatement generates for the economy. That point moves steadily to the right morning, noon, and night.

LA Project 7

I’d like to thank Tim Badalucco, Darla Vaughn, and Aaron Rose for their outstanding contributions to the Community Service project.

© Steve Powers