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Art or Not?

The Baltimore Sun

Barry Heintz pulls the trigger of a powerwasher to blast away the last vestiges of an eight-foot-long and two-foot-high sprawl of graffiti in a Mount Vernon alley. He has already blasted it with a chemical mix called Taginator Graffiti Remover and scrubbed at it with an ordinary push broom. When he's finished washing, nothing remains but a few small patches of white underneath a crumbling windowsill.

Heintz, maintenance supervisor with the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, may be graffiti's worst enemy. But many others in the city consider it art.

Just a mile and a half from the alley where Heintz attacked the unsightly black and white name, the DB5K Gallery has an exhibition showcasing famous graffiti "writers" and the movement's progression over the decades. Prices in the Foundations of Style Writing show range as high as $1,000, and on opening night, a dozen pieces sold.

Graffiti is a strange hybrid. Across the country, people vilify it as vandalism indicative of neighborhoods in decline; others laud it as urban art worthy of museums. This year alone, Baltimore will spend nearly a million dollars to keep streets and alleys pristine. Meanwhile, DB5K in Fells Point is selling writers' signatures, or tags, drawn on everything from torn pieces of paper to stolen street signs, and the National Portrait Gallery in Washington has incorporated large panels of graffiti into an exhibition about hip-hop's influence on portraiture.

Different from gang graffiti, which is used mainly to mark territory and threaten violence to other gangs, hip-hop graffiti began in the late 1960s in Philadelphia. It focuses on creating abstract letters and words for the pleasure of painting, and increasing visibility of a street artist's talents. Hip-hop graffiti spread to New York City, where it became wildly popular - by the early 1980s, almost every subway car was covered in spray paint. A subculture developed, including hip-hop music, breakdancing and skateboarding.

"It was a way to identify with where I was coming from in life," recalls the graffiti artist known as Stab, who would not provide his full name. He began tagging Baltimore at 13 and was guest curator at the DB5K show. "I didn't want to be on the soccer team or the baseball team. I wanted to be out on my skateboard."

The movement is still going strong, despite the best efforts of politicians and city workers.

Graffiti is visible on many streets and alleys in and around Baltimore. Heintz says that here in Lovegrove Alley alone, he has painted every door and scrubbed the walls clean a few times. Hidden behind some scaffolding a few feet away, there is another, even bigger, tag.

There are fewer tags downtown than there used to be, he says, but still enough to make Heintz - who has been cleaning up after the taggers for 15 years - go out once a month in his pickup truck, scrubbing and spraying.

"We have smaller tags now - it seems like they're hitting everywhere but downtown. The outskirts [of downtown] are covered," he says.

DB5K's walls are covered as well, but with the mostly illegible tags framed with price tags. Stab says the show is more about education than making money, though opening-night sales brought in a couple of thousand dollars.

The show "is an overview about an art movement," said Stab, 38, one of the grandfathers of hip-hop graffiti "writing." A self-taught artist, he also creates found art pieces and reverse technique on glass - painting scenes backward on old windows. He defends what he does on the streets, calling that art as well.

Graffiti has "been culturally effective for so long that it can claim it's become high art," he said. "It's undeniably an art form but it's more than that - it is a culture and a community."

Hundreds of people flowed in and out of DB5K at the show's May 2 opening, the gallery's biggest ever, according to owner Daniel Fountain. The diverse crowd ranged from young hipsters to older men with dreadlocks down past their waists. Many were writers themselves, trading tags and showing off sketchbooks. Empty Natty Boh cans littered the corners of the rooms and the windowsills.

"The show was incredible," Fountain said. "It was awesome - two stars more than I expected."

Though some graffiti artists object to displaying their work in galleries, others want it to be seen as art in the eyes of the masses.

Graffiti, Stab said, has "grown up out of being a fad ... but now you have it developing on into [established] artists changing the way they do art. We're never going to have classic art again."

Museums and the established art world appear to agree. Recognize!, an exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery, includes photographs and paintings of hip-hop artists, films, poems and an installation piece. Connecting the rooms of the exhibition are massive graffiti panels, done by graffiti artists Dave Hupp and Tim Conlon.

"We are not glorifying the illegal activity, but we are acknowledging the larger impact this street tradition has had in contemporary art," Frank Goodyear III, one of the exhibition's curators, said in an interview with Smithsonian magazine. A spokesperson for the National Portrait Gallery declined to comment on the exhibit to The Sun because of negative responses to the Smithsonian article.

"At least as far as the Smithsonian show goes, I think it's great that people are recognizing [graffiti] as an art form and not just vandalism," said Conlon, 33, who began illegally painting in Baltimore in 1993. "It's probably one of the largest art forms in the world. It's everywhere - you can travel to any part of the world and see people doing it."

Art or not, Baltimore has not given up trying to eradicate graffiti from its streets.

"It certainly is a problem -- graffiti is everywhere, in parks, on buildings. Very often we'll paint over it and it'll come back," said Elaine Garven, assistant deputy mayor of Neighborhoods and Economic Development.

Mayor Sheila Dixon's Cleaner, Greener Baltimore initiative includes a redoubled effort to legally paint the bare walls of the city. Many streets will be getting murals, which act as graffiti deterrents. She has pledged to create 20 new ones this year in a program called CityPaint 2008: Baltimore Mural Project under the direction of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts.

In the past three years, 30 have been painted in the city.

"It's a lofty goal, but I think it's a goal we'll be able to achieve," said Shawn James, community art coordinator with the Office of Promotion and the Arts.

Artists working with the arts agency have been painting murals since 1987. More than 100 now decorate the streets, and James has helped paint at least four of them.

One mural is in progress behind the Giant supermarket on East 33rd Street and Old York Road in Waverly. Four designs are being considered for the Eastern Avenue underpass, which will be painted later this year. Walls in the Sandtown, Midtown and Barclay neighborhoods are also being considered as potential sites.

"Murals show a visual interest in the city - you're interested in the infrastructure," James said.

Cities across the country, including Washington, Philadelphia and San Francisco, have developed successful mural programs. Graffiti writers generally do not deface such murals, out of respect for other artists trying to beautify the city.

Though it is James' job to help create the preventive murals, he does not mind graffiti itself. He minds it because it is illegal.

"I don't think vandalism validates or invalidates art," he said. "I can't say it's not art just because it's illegal.

"But if you look at the definition, graffiti is illegal."

Graffiti writers have been involved in creating some of Baltimore's murals. According to James, the murals that combine painting and aerosol spray cans come out the best. It also gives writers a legitimate outlet.

"Graffiti artists need to do something more socially acceptable," he said. "Murals offer an opportunity for graffiti artists and artists alike to do a legal piece."

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