To tag or not to tag, that is the question

posted by
Filed under: Co-option (If You Can't Beat 'Em...)

www.teako170.comFrom Medill Reports Chicago: Street art has moved not just to the art world, but to the world of everyday consumption

It's not the car, it's the graffiti selling it
by Phillip Kaplan
May 16, 2007

Graffiti and advertising are kind of like cops and robbers: eerily similar to each other yet at complete opposition.

Members of each group cross into the other with the each group usually condemning the other’s action, but sometimes covertly encouraging it. Each has a righteousness of rhetoric, and the perspective of which is "right" or "wrong" depends on what turns you on - getting over authority or getting "bad" guys.

While advertising is meant to inform people, graffiti writing often addresses only those who can decode it.

But the advertising industry seems to think there are enough decoders out there to cater to, perhaps thinking if someone stares at some graffiti to find out the name of the artist who did it, what's the difference if the name spells Honda?

Street artists have a certain creed, generalized as something like getting your work out the most, the biggest or the highest. Advertisers want the same thing for their product awareness: saturation, line of sight or location.

Each wants their name recognized. Each needs the other - anti-establishment needs an establishment.

Crossover seems natural, or at least inevitable.

But so much of street art culture is in diametric opposition to things like marketing campaigns, apparel lines - i.e. advertising. Many street artists so despise advertising that their lives are dedicated to the counter culture of it.

As graffiti photographer Jim Prigoff said at a seminar at the Art Institute of Chicago, "Some artists go to great lengths to make sure their work isn't sold." And that graffiti has traditionally been done "for its own creativity, not for being in a marketplace."

And yet he is selling a very fine book of graffiti photographs.

What's relatively new is not the selling of graffiti in and around the art world, such as Prigoff’s "Spraycan Art" book or mod apparel lines, it is the selling of everyday products using the aesthetic of graffiti and street art, it's that graffiti is culturally relevant enough that it can be used to sell deodorant, phones, food and cars.

Art-vertising:

The target demographic in question does need to clean, communicate, eat and travel.

"All the stuff that challenges mainstream energizes the mainstream,” said Albert Muniz, associate professor in the department of marketing at DePaul University. “[Graffiti] has become a status symbol for coolness, the chief status system in North America today. As people buy their piece of coolness it ceases to be cool to the people who made it.

"This is not conspiratorial, clutter begets more clutter and people become effective at tuning out. Advertisers look for something to break through that clutter - the graffiti motif gets consumers to notice."

With roughly 2,000 advert images a day bombarding each person, why not stand out?

Chicago has many examples of graffiti-esque advertising. Pepsi has four "wall murals" in the city right now as part of its "Design Our Pepsi Can" contest, which Pepsi says is part of its "global re-branding efforts.” Pepsi adds, “The contest allows for the first time a consumer to design the look of a Pepsi can."

Pepsi spokeswoman Nicole Bradley, who was careful to refer only to "wall murals" and not to use the term graffiti, said "[The mural concept] fit in line with the whole creativity aspect of the promotion."

The contest is aimed at youth, from the placement of these ads, urban youth. One is across from a YMCA. Another, on the same two-block stretch of Halsted Street, is directly across from Cabrini Green.

Though the contest is national, murals were only done in Chicago, completed by Miguel Aguilar.

Aguilar has done many graffiti-styled advert murals for companies, such as Ford and Mountain Dew, but is most recently known for his designer footwear company MR Pussy Foot. The Bears’ Tank Johnson is a customer.

Aguilar has written graffiti since 1989 and only entered commercial art in 1994. "The CTA sponsored this thing in an attempt to, I don't know, let artists be able to express themselves while removing the illegal element. ... [I] won a merit scholarship to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago - and that introduced me to fine art."

The Pepsi ads aren't fine art, yet employ fine art sensibilities and talents.
Aguilar says about creating this corporate graffiti, "There is an inner dialogue that continues on inside yourself — I still have issues with it — it's a constant conversation with yourself. I try to balance the commercial work with personal, when I do too much of one... I take a step back and go in the other direction."

Pepsi had already concocted the idea through corporate board meetings and then subcontracted the work to Aguilar's company, We Are Supervision.

Ken Green, a Chicago culture simpatico and writer for online journal “Chicago Jargon,” says, “[Graffiti] is the perfect medium for ad execs to co-opt, manipulate and exploit without coming across as a CEO trying to beatbox in the boardroom. Advertisers, after all, had been painting their product come-ons on the sides of buildings for decades. Look around Chicago and you can see the faded, peeling remnants of painted-on ads for now defunct hotels, companies, political candidates and products, with telephone numbers that began with ‘BL9’ and the like.”

Ads that try to play into a culture often look staged, because they are, but graffiti is easier because, as Green says, graffiti lettering is graffiti lettering.

The City of Chicago's stance

"Ads that glorify graffiti or encourage it - this doesn't score points with our residents,” said Matt Smith, the city’s director of public affairs. “If you get a telemarketing call at home; ‘I'm at home leave me alone.' It's the same thing with being subjected to ads you don't want. This city belongs to Chicagoans, not gangs, taggers, graffiti artists or advertisers."

Chicago has removed more than 50,000 pieces this year, using high-powered baking soda water blasters, painting over it, applying a citrus-based solution - the city has a lot of tricks, innovative tactics that mirror a graffiti writers' desired means: cheap, fast, effective.

Mayor Richard M. Daley's Graffiti Blasters are strictly dedicated to graffiti, $6.5 million per year, close to 80 people work on it year round, 14 paint crews, 19 blast crews, handful of supervisors, paint crews ride everyday on the CTA and the Metra to see the graffiti.

So the city is invested in this. There's even a 24-hour anti-graffiti hotline.

In 1993 it became the first large municipality in the United States to assume the financial responsibility for removing graffiti from privately owned property.

And it made spray paint illegal in the city limits.

David Castillo, local graffiti artist since 1994, acknowledges the "really massive crackdown." But says there was "a kind of lull in a the late ’90s, less funding for the blasters. So thanks to the Bush administration, there has been a resurgence."

Enough for advertisers to notice and get into it. And what if, say, Nautica or Pepsi placed the graffiti?

"If it's graffiti, it's graffiti, if its not licensed, its not legal, we go after cost recovery."

In 2001, IBM paid Chicago and San Francisco more than $120,000 in fines and clean-up costs after its advertising agency spray-painted Linux advertisements on the cities’ sidewalks.

"If it's a commissioned mural - not raw gang graffiti, we will work with them and tolerate it. If it is blatant graffiti we'll get it."

There is graffiti that is fine art not in a museum and there is the graffiti that vandalized the Vietnam War Memorial in 2004. Property owners and the buff crews make the call in most cases.

Another anti-graffiti program in Chicago is called Give Graffiti the Brush. This initiative offers city-purchased paint to any block-club or other community agency willing to cover graffiti on wood or other painted surfaces unsuited for the city’s power washers. The city has distributed more than 200,000 gallons since 1990.

Graffiti artists used the Chicago program to against Axe Body Spray's graffiti-inspired 2004 ad campaign.

"Not long after appearing, the ads were blacked out by local graffiti artists — one was even arrested for doing so,” said Ken Green. “In some cases, they even had the graffiti ads blacked out under the City of Chicago’s ‘Give Graffiti The Brush’ program, a particularly ironic twist.”

Chicago’s Smith says that no matter the style of the advert, it most go through procedure or "we'll clean it and seek costs."

“Some people claim its expression, it's also vandalism, defacement, and a way of telling community their turf is marked."

But isn't advertising?

Sidebar:

An example of street art working as advertisement:
Brian Urbaszewski, director of Environmental Health Programs for the American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago, last year connected with art students from Columbia College to create pollution awareness regarding the Fisk and Crawford power plants, two old coal-firing power plants built before the Clean Air Act. He says they were essentially "grandfathered" in to being allowed to pollute at high levels.

Using a stencil and power-washer, a chalk-outline-esque image of a dead body was "cleaned" away from dirt on the sidewalks. In its center was a curt message and a Web site. In regards to using a street art style campaign, Urbaszewski said, "It's the press value you get from doing something different, something odd. You get to explain why you’re doing this in the first place."

He said it crossed over from youth culture, as well, because "everyone recognizes the outline of a dead body."

The issue was far too complex to convey all facets in an advertisement, but this street art cheaply, effectively and cleanly communicated the most basic of ideas and generated a good amount of traffic to the cause.

As of today, measures and timelines are in place for Fisk and Crawford to reduce pollution.

An example of street art not working as advertisement:
Those who make street art are usually picky about "their" turf. Offend the wrong group with the wrong campaign and not only will your ad be ineffective, it will go negatively. An ad for Sony's Playstation Portable was quickly turned into "PSP sucks dick" by people on the street who took offense to Sony's campaign. That is a less than positive branding of your image.

There is an as-of-yet unwritten code of law for street art credibility. For one, Sony didn't claim the ads, it did not sign its name. Sony attempted to make them appear to be the seminal works of art done by artists without inspiration beyond a Sony product.

Gray areas of street art as product and placing products
Verizon conducted a sidewalk graffiti campaign in Washington, D.C., for a new yellow pages service it is offering. The city fined the company $1,050 for violating D.C.’s advertising rules, $150 for each of seven ads.

Even though Verizon was fined, the price is small for a company that in 2003 cruised through a $5.7 million fine from the FCC.

Locally, architecture photographer Doug Fogelson collaborated with 40 graffiti writers to see what their work would be like on the buildings in his pictures. The book, “Graffitecture,” was released earlier this year.

It is art. It is graffiti. It is a product. Nothing was vandalized.

"We were highly concerned about the mainstream," said Fogelson. "There were some people out there maybe poo-pooing it, but most were enthusiastic to be shining a light on Chicago graf and the concept.

"It is interesting the way things are spinning with pop culture, it's not bad to achieve more respect, it provides further interesting opportunities to use graffiti as a method of expression and art. The more chances for legitimacy the better.

"We're trying to do permission and non-permission more than commercial and non-commercial. I personally am not interested in commodifying it any further than the book, as are apparel providers.[Advertsing with graffiti] is not as bad as polluting the Earth or making war in the Middle East, but there is a true spirit of graf, then there is stuff that happens on your shoes."

One of Fogelson's artists is David Castillo, who said about graffiti writers making adverts, "It's great... people have to sustain themselves - if they can do it being creative, by all means go ahead."

World and local perceptions
Google up Banksy and see, or the term “culture jamming.”

The feeling of many street artists is that public space is increasingly privatized by companies that have only one goal: to make the most money possible. Artists want what they feel humans should want, space to be made interesting.

Corporate graffiti then is something hard to figure. Does it encourage thoughtless tagging? Are the ads themselves heartless?

One opinion photographer Jim Prigoff represents, "The ugliest graffiti of all is billboards... in my face telling me things I don't want to hear. ... The [graffiti] style has been co-opted by corporate America, Pepsi can do top-to-bottoms [covering the entire surface available, i.e. all of a bus, a wall, or, traditionally, a train car]."

Andrew Potter, University of Toronto philosophy professor and co-author of “Nation of Rebels: Why Counter Culture Became Consumer Culture,” said this concept is basically passé, even though his book was published in 2004. When asked to comment about graffiti selling products, he said, "The whole thing has a very late ’90s feel to it, including the Pepsi-style murals."

Yet some people are totally unaware of graffiti as anything more than blight. Says Prigoff, “10 years ago there were probably a dozen graffiti mags and a hundred Web sites, today there are hundreds of mags and thousands of Web sites, with the numbers growing each day.”

©2001 – 2007 Medill Reports – Chicago, Northwestern University. A publication of the Medill School.