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Intersections: Street art pits creativity against vandalism

A few weeks ago, I spotted something I had never seen before in Glendale: public street art. A neat, black, spray-painted phrase stared back at me from the cement, encompassed in two delicate motifs that surrounded it: “Keep Your Head Up.”

I couldn't look away, engulfed in the unfounded fear that the ground would have surely absorbed this rare creative expression if I did. So I quickly took a photo and shared it with the world, uploading it with the caption, “a rare, but welcome sighting: public street art in the Glendale area.”

The response was positive. Perhaps I wasn't in alone in my yearning for some public form of expression in a city with virtually none.

Life went on and I soon forgot about the phrase on the cement that made me smile, on a day which I appreciated being told to keep my head up just by looking down. But this weekend, something happened. I went to Echo Park, and its bold, vivid murals depicting religious figures, children's fairy tales and tongue-in-cheek phrases darting out from the sidewalks brought all my feelings back again.

The creativity I stumbled upon made me feel alive. It energized me. It gave me a sense of what this city and community is all about, even if I didn't live there. The public expression fed my own need to create, too, and I thought about how important that could be to young people who need self-expression the most and, as often is the case, get it the least.

I started to wonder what impressions people passing through Glendale had of the city. Between the Brand Boulevard of Cars, the Americana at Brand and Armenian-owned businesses that gave clues to demographics, not much was left to get a real sense of the city's personality. And judging by the section of the city's website devoted to “Artwork in Public Spaces,” where murals commissioned by and located in the Lexus dealership and several watercolor paintings on the walls of City Hall are highlighted, I'd wager to say that Glendale needs a public artwork revamp and revaluation.

And don't get me started on those Marketplace frogs again.

Since the prominent emergence of modern street art, the lines between it and graffiti have been blurred, especially when it comes to its legality. Who determines if street art is graffiti? Or if graffiti is street art? How do you separate artistic expression from vandalism?

It's hard to tell when scribbles defacing ATM machines or trains are sometimes categorically in the same league as the work of socially conscious Banksy and Miss Van, whose bold depictions of women line the walls in Barcelona.

For Glendale, the definitions are all encompassing. Under the city's Title 9 code, Public Peace and Welfare, “the existence of graffiti is declared to be obnoxious and a nuisance.”

And how does the city define graffiti? “The act of altering or defacing any real or personal property of another without their consent through the use of paint, spray paint, markers, objects or other substances capable of destroying property...which is offensive to a reasonably sensitive person.”

Spray paint, wide-tip markers and the like are required to be kept behind locked cabinets in stores and the removal of graffiti is done by the T.A.G.G. Program, or “Terminate All Glendale Graffiti,” operated by the Committee for a Clean & Beautiful Glendale.

The spray-painted phrase I had found on the sidewalk sprung to mind. Panic set in. Had “Keep Your Head Up” been reported and then painted over, forever transforming the ground back to its boring, gray state?

I looked at the clock. It was past midnight, all I wanted was the cacophony of the New Jersey Housewives to lull me to sleep, but I had to find out if it was still there. So I drove to it, nervous that my discovery had, well, been discovered.

It hadn't, at least not by the people who would end its existence. Someone nearby was stacking up chairs to take in to their store. I asked him if he knew anything about who had painted the phrase and when it appeared. He didn't, but mentioned if I wanted to see more public art, I'd probably have to escape Glendale's city limits.

I shook my head in agreement, and wished, secretly, it didn't have to be that way.

LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Paste magazine, New America Media, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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