by Erin Wilson
An analysis of the City of Sydney’s MURALS, STREET ART AND GRAFFITI AS HERITAGE ITEMS proposal.
The streets of Sydney are covered with street art, or graffiti, that was created in defiance of official regulations of good taste. While in the past it seemed the City of Sydney Council abhorred these works, the recent release of a graffiti register proposal has revealed a new, progressive view of these works… or has it?
While the proposed register addresses many key issues regarding the identification, documentation and preservation of ‘socially valuable’ street art, there are also many it neglects. However, many issues that seem to be washed over or neglected entirely in the new policy, are likely mentioned in the City’s ‘other’ graffiti policy- the current Graffiti Management policy. While this policy may now be superseded by the new approach, it makes mention of a key element that the graffiti register proposal has neglected: the creator of the work.
As a result, to gain a full understanding of the City of Sydney’s new approach to graffiti and/or street art, it is necessary to consider both documents alongside one another. In doing so it becomes clear, before the end of the first paragraph, that contradictions will arise. For instance, according to graffiti register policy, street art and some graffiti ‘make a valuable contribution to the City’s identity and social cohesion. Such artworks are associated with innovation and creativity, as well as adding to the richness and diversity of the City’s cultural life’. However, according to the graffiti management policy, ‘Unsightly graffiti adds to an atmosphere of neglect and urban decay, and distorts perceptions about the actual level of crime and safety’. While few people will argue that all graffiti does either of these things, what is most problematic with these conflicting views is a lack of clarity concerning exactly who will decide which graffiti is ‘valuable’ and which is ‘unsightly’.
Having acknowledged the social and economic benefits of (some) street art, the proposed policy then outlines a series of procedures for identifying, documenting and maintaining works deemed to be socially significant. Work that falls into the ‘valuable’ or ‘socially significant’ category is to be determined collaboratively, through community and council consultation. However, it is unclear whether new works that may be deemed to have social value by the city and local community will have the chance to be considered. As the City of Sydney has a quick removal policy, patrolling identified ‘priority zones’ as frequently as once every 24 hours, and ‘routine zones’ every five days, it is not unreasonable to question whether works that have potential value to the community will survive long enough to resonate, or even be seen. Further, in regard to community consultation, the public exhibition of the planning proposal is a key point in determining at what level decisions of significance will be made. Accepting and encouraging community consultation as a key step in the process suggests the community will have an active voice in determining what is significant. While the notion of community consultation is seemingly progressive, the graffiti register proposal still neglects to mention another key group concerned – the creators of the socially valuable works.
While the graffiti register policy makes no mention of these creators, the graffiti management policy does. As well as asserting the prosecution of offenders as a deterrent strategy, this policy states ‘Illegal graffitists will be deprived of the reward/satisfaction of recognition’, this apparently applies regardless of the recognised social significance of the work. While the graffiti management policy that employs this strategy deals primarily with the ‘bad’ type of graffiti, the absence of discussion of graffitists in the graffiti register policy suggests this strategy may be applied to creators of ‘good’ graffiti too. This raises the question, is a graffitist whose work is deemed worthy of heritage listing to be denied recognition as a punishment for illegally adding to the social value of the city?
The current graffiti management policy states ‘the success of the City’s graffiti removal program is due to its sensitivity to the distinction between creative expression from the community and unacceptable visual pollution by graffiti’. Essentially, the City of Sydney recognises that the term ‘graffiti’ covers both the socially valuable creative expressions valued by the community, or ‘good’ graffiti, and the unwanted, visually displeasing vandalism abhorred by the community, or ‘bad’ graffiti. While a culmination of the two policies provides strategies for dealing with both types of graffiti, there is only vague allusion at most to how graffiti will be defined as one or the other, and who will make this decision.
While the treatment of what is valuable graffiti is vague in both policies, the major contradiction between the two policies is the attitude applied to illegal graffiti. While the graffiti management policy engages with a deterrence policy, the graffiti register policy states, ‘These art forms, expressed within the shared arena of the public domain, are often controversial when being established, but add to the vibrancy of the city’. The controversy referred to, in actuality, involves the potential prosecution of the creator, the attempted removal of the work as soon as is possible, and the policy of allowing no public attribution to the creator of the work.
Under the Summary Offences Act 1998, the penalty in NSW for ‘willful damage or defacement of property by means of spray paint without reasonable excuse’ is a fine of $2200 or 6 months in prison for ‘serious or persistent offenders’. Across Australia, the penalty for creating, or the intention to create, graffiti ranges form having no specified law to a term of seven years imprisonment for repeat offenders. In prosecuting graffitists, consistent acts of graffiti rather than intention, scale or location of the work is listed as the factor most likely to result in a prison term being served. While the graffiti register policy suggests a new, progressive approach to graffiti, these laws have received no mention, and as a result, it can be assumed they will continue to operate in the same way as they have been, despite the new appreciation Sydney has for (some) graffiti works. Simply put, the City of Sydney discourages and penalises illegal graffiti practices, with the exception of the (still undefined) ‘good’ graffiti. While the graffiti register policy recognises some graffiti, though created illegally, may too become worthy of heritage status, no attempt has been made to alter the approach taken to illegal graffiti from the time of its conception. If a graffitist risks association with their work resulting in prosecution when the work is deemed to be ‘visual pollution’, surely they should receive public recognition for their contribution to society if the work is deemed valuable to the point of heritage listing.
While the new graffiti register policy has raised a variety of issues and contradictions, they are not unique to Sydney. In her article ‘Negotiated consent or zero tolerance?’ Alison Young, a criminologist and socio-legal researcher, outlines her designated task in 2004: to develop a new, progressive graffiti policy for Melbourne. Despite Young’s policy receiving widespread support, it was never adopted by the City of Melbourne, who instead opted for a ‘zero tolerance’ policy. An examination of Young’s policy provides insight into a balanced, considered and progressive approach to graffiti in major cities. Young first refers to the concept of ‘negotiated consent’, a key element of this being the implementation of ‘zones of tolerance’, essentially designated spaces for legal graffiti, as are seen in several areas of Sydney already. Young proposed that three zones be developed: zones of zero tolerance, zones of limited tolerance (in which property owners make decisions on what is removed or preserved, with council intervention only occurring if necessary in the case of disagreement between individuals), and finally designated zones. Like several similar zones in Sydney, work in designated zones would not face council removal and would be self-regulated and maintained by the contributing creators.
A major element addressed in Young’s proposed policy was one neglected in Sydney’s new policy – recognition of the role of the creators of the works in question. Young’s proposal suggested a re-definition of the term ‘stakeholder’ in order to approach the issue of graffiti in a more inclusive, considered way. Young notes that the term stakeholder is primarily, if not exclusively, applied to those in opposition to graffiti, and as a result seeks to include graffitists and supporters of graffiti within this term. She suggests that redefining the term stakeholder to include all individuals concerned with the works will help protect and promote the rights of the creators, and those who reside in areas discussed, that appreciate the social or aesthetic value of the works in question.
Despite Young’s call to consider graffitists and pro-graffitists, the adopted zero tolerance policy, as in Sydney’s policy, acknowledged the value of certain graffiti works while managing to make no mention of their creators or their fate. This is particularly interesting, as in her research Young found graffiti artists in Melbourne were willing to work alongside the council in formulating policies that present a balanced approach to graffiti issues, however as in the Sydney policy, these collaborations become obsolete. While the Sydney graffiti register is seemingly a progressive approach, engaging to an extent with the idea of negotiated consent, the lack of amendment to current graffiti laws that engage with a ‘zero-tolerance’ approach suggests the graffiti register policy is at best a vague attempt at progressive views, with a major neglect of relevant concerned stakeholders.
Ultimately, Young’s attempt at a fair, balanced and inclusive graffiti policy highlights what is possible when all parties are considered and consulted. However, what becomes clear is the still conflicting, undefined view of graffiti. While Sydney Council has followed Melbourne in its attempt to take a progressive approach to graffiti, an overriding conflict seems to exist regarding when graffiti is good and when it is bad, when it is art and when it is vandalism, as well as neglecting to consider the creators in the first capacity, only in the second as criminals.
What an analysis of the graffiti register proposal and the graffiti management policy reveals is that neither should be consulted in isolation. Each contains information that contradicts the other and each fills in the blanks where the other is vague. What is further established are the problems that arise when a fairly vague policy is developed on the basis of subjective, undefined opinions. While the City of Sydney has taken a step in the right direction by recognising the potential of graffiti art, it cannot be as simple as categorising some graffiti as ‘good’ and some as ‘bad’. Even a brief examination of current academic literature in the field of street art reveals a plethora of issues seemingly neglected in the current policies. Issues including recognition and anonymity, audience participation or a ‘street dialogue’, commodification of graffiti art, graffitists’ role in the construction of place identity and fluid notions of public space are only a few of the issues that are essentially ignored by these new policies.
While it is true that we have to start somewhere, and the graffiti register is a step in the right direction for street art in Sydney, it is fair to say it is only a step. To move leaps and bounds the City of Sydney must consider the need for a progression of laws to coincide with progressive conceptions of the role of graffiti. The classification of graffiti as either art (good) or vandalism (bad) must be recognised as subjective and there must be more formal guidelines in place for the classification of graffiti. Finally, it is a necessity that the creators of the socially valuable works discussed in the graffiti register policy are provided recognition. While the graffiti management policy acknowledges creators, although through discussion of their prosecution, the graffiti register policy seems to treat street art as though it simply appears. If an individual can be identified and prosecuted for their ‘visual pollution’ surely they should be identified and praised for their addition to the ‘richness and diversity of the City’s cultural life’.
3. Alison Young (2010): Negotiated consent or zero tolerance? Responding to graffiti and street art in Melbourne, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, 14:1-2, 99-114