I was sitting on the side of a steep, snow and broken beer bottle-covered hill next to a bridge on Lansing's south side watching a freight train rattle by. Almost every belly of every boxcar was tagged with bright spray paint. The writers who put their names on the boxcars could be exotic, from far away places like Omaha, Austin, Baton Rouge or Albuquerque.
And the perfect thing was that the train was passing underneath this bridge, the underside of which had been lit up by Lansing taggers. It was like a little party: Lansing taggers, meet Omaha taggers, and so forth.
After the train passed, I crawled down the hill feet first through thorns and vines. When I reached the bottom I stood in the middle of the tracks and looked up at this cavern of graffiti (that's the most commonly known word by virtue of its overuse — people who do this likely prefer "tagging" or "adbusting," etc.) or vandalism or art or writing or whatever it is you want to call it. To my left, high up on a concrete slope, was “Dub” in green and red, and at my feet, written on the rail in silver was “Jacob.” There were painted shapes and colors that I had never seen before and rusted, old spray paint cans lying around. In one corner there was an abandoned jacket that looked like it still contained a body.
I’m no expert on graffiti. I can’t, don't and have never tried to “write.” All I can do is appreciate and observe.
It’s kind of like going to a museum. You go down to the Detroit Institute of Arts, you pay $8 and walk in the front door and through a few big rooms and you get to see that Diego Rivera mural. It’s amazing. You look up and you say to yourself, “Oh my god.”
It’s the same thing if you take the time to crawl down underneath a bridge and you look up at this bombed cavern. The experience of discovering a wall of tags is almost as good as the artwork.
Graffiti is art that never makes it into a museum. And that’s OK, because being in a museum is not its purpose. Graffiti is meant to be done quickly, cheaply and with the knowledge that your work might not exist for very long. Graffiti is not authorized — most of the time — and is meant to be both a rebellion against your environment (or a way of making it better) and a way of making yourself known. These are basic and general observations about graffiti; you could talk forever about the context of graffiti and the class, in America, from which it was born. And further from that there are the reasons people either hate graffiti or love it.
(Some would choke if a lowly spray-paint-can vandal were equated with an "artist" — in fact a Pittsburgh police detective did so at a recent news conference after two art school students were arrested for an alleged "tagging spree.")
In Lansing, there doesn't seem to be a graffiti "scene," as it were. There aren't lots of groups of kids running around bombing CATA buses and abandoned warehouses with backpacks full of rattling little cans, terrorizing the streets and spraying moustaches on Ronald McDonald. I can't think of a famous Lansing writer, but I can remember Cost and Revs — graffiti artists in New York City — clear as day. There is graffiti here, but to the common man there probably appears to be a more vandalism than anything.
For example, last winter a couple of idiots wrote gay epithets around Old Town and were later arrested. Good. And then, of course, Mayor Virg Bernero and At-Large Councilwoman Kathie Dunbar got their names dragged through the mud earlier this year on the walls of Lewton and Elmhurst elementary schools: “Purge Virg” and “Dump Dunbar" was sprayed. I know there was an abandoned house on the west side that had a bunch of garbage scribbled on it in black spray paint. And if you go up to the old School for the Blind on Willow Street, there's plenty of scribbling.
But I guess it's unfair to separate what I call "scribbling" from what could be considered "art." I was once told by “Curve," a writer who used to operate in New York, Connecticut and Philadelphia, that there are differences between writers. It's all a language, he said. But of some of it is talk between gangs, some between artists and some between wannabes.
"The first thing is just getting your name up," Curve said. "It's kind of like a language between writers. There are writers that suck. If you did your tag and it looks like scribble, that's ... less than."
There is also commerce in graffiti. In downtown Lansing — where, apparently, it is all happening — in Decker's Coffee Co. there's a bunch of artwork hanging up. Written on the artwork is the tag "Mex" or "Mexone," who is the creator of the art. Mex is the tag of Paul Vetne, a Battle Creek artist who works at Liquid Tattoo up on old U.S. 27 between Lansing and Dewitt. I visited him recently because he's the only person with a classic-looking tag that I could track down. Vetne is trying to make a living as an artist and has started a clothing company, Asthetix Apparrel; Vetne was wearing a T-shirt of his own design on the day I met him, which featured the word "Asthetix" in traditional graffiti script and a drawing of a spray paint can. He also showed me a few tattoos he's done, which also were done in classic big block graffiti lettering. He considered that some would call him a "sell out" — because he's taken a street culture off the streets and is using it to make a little money. But Vetne has a wife, kids and house, and he's got to make a living, right?
"Ultimately, you got to think about what's best for you," Vetne said. "You're not going to be an entrepreneur if you're sitting in a jail cell."
Vetne told me this really great and profound story about graffiti: He said that while he was living in New York he saw a woman and her young daughter go into an alley. In the alley, the word "fuck" was sprayed on the wall. The little girl saw the painting and remarked to her mother that it was beautiful. The mother scolded her daughter and remarked that the tag was disgusting. It's interesting that such an ugly word can be transformed into something nice. No more meaning in the word, at least to that little girl. It was just a pretty painting.
I mentioned to Vetne that I hadn't really noticed a lot of graffiti around Lansing, outside the occasional scratch on a bar bathroom wall or on a bus stop, and of course some vandalism, but nothing huge. His theory is that most graffiti is part of a larger hip-hop culture, which is more at home in larger urban areas. In other words, we're too small to spawn a Keith Haring, Earsnot or, Jean Michel-Basquiat, Diego Rivera, and if you like his stuff, Banksy. (If you do like Banksy — a British stencil artist/graphic designer/prankster — there are some stencils on the convenience store at the corner of Kalamazoo and Clemens.) Plus, a lot of the hip-hop movement that blew up in the 80s and prior has been lost on this generation, Vetne said.
"If you don't live in a big urban scene, there's not a lot of opportunity," he said. '
Bernero has been trying all through this year to get his own graffiti ordinance passed. Lansing already has one, but Bernero's would be tougher, requiring businesses to clean up graffiti and instituting mandatory minimum sentences and fines for repeat taggers. So far, Bernero's ordinance has not passed through City Council — and it won't pass this year because Council isn't meeting again until after January.
Like many mayors before him, apparently, Bernero wants to eradicate graffiti as a property crime. His approach seems to go hand-in-hand with those security cameras and the concept of having "eyes on the streets." Keeping the windows unbroken, if you will. There's a popular theory that urban disorder, like graffiti, breeds more disorder and thus more crime. New York City embraced this theory when in the '80s it waged war against graffiti artists — some of the greatest writers, ever. Broken windows policing, however, has been criticized as a "neo-conservative" method of eradicating crime.
"Look, I'm open to artistic expression. But I don't think it's an issue of kids expressing themselves. It's an issue of vandals and little gangsta wannabes," Bernero said.
Bernero, however, when asked whether he considers graffiti art or crime, was ambivalent. He does think some of it is art ... some of it.
"I had not thought about it before," Bernero said when asked "art or crime?" He said that First Ward Councilman Eric Hewitt brought the idea to his attention. Some of it is "well done," he admits. Hewitt, who is in charge of the Public Service Committee, thinks that Bernero's ordinance is unnecessary. Hewitt, in fact, readily mentions "art" and "graffiti" in the same breath. He even brought up the greatness of Keith Haring.
"Most graffiti is problematic. It's not created with permission," Bernero says. "It is most problematic because it is created on private or public property without permission. No one has said, 'I invited this graffiti.'"
City Attorney Brig Smith couldn’t say how many graffiti prosecutions his office has handled, which he owed to the city's not having a “stand alone” graffiti ordinance.
But Bernero isn't trying to completely outlaw graffiti in Lansing. He would consider making it legitimate with a special wall for writers and other artists. This, however, raises an interesting problem: How would a legal graffiti wall be policed? How would police differentiate between gang symbols, hate speech and actual art? Would Lansing police have to start taking art history classes? Bernero called it making "subjective judgment calls."
A legal graffiti wall in Lansing sound good. It could go over well, except with people who hate graffiti in all forms. And then, some people might disagree with structured graffiti. Property crime is so cool, anyway.
Personally, I prefer to stumble upon little graffiti museums. Lansing may not be New York City circa the summer of 1981, but it's fine.
Last week, in search of more graffiti, I walked into one of those General Motors Corp. parking lots out by the Grand River Assembly plant. There was a man loading brand new Cadillacs onto a car-hauling truck. I asked the man if he knew of a hole in a fence somewhere where I could crawl down under the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard bridge over the Grand River. He didn't know and pointed me to a very friendly Securitas security guard. Unfortunately, the security guard could only give me the number of the GM plant to see if they'd let me in. I couldn't get through to GM.
Instead, I walked across the MLK bridge. At the intersection of Moores River Drive and the northbound lane of MLK, I noticed that there was a little path leading to underneath the bridge. I hopped a guardrail and slid down the hill, almost ending up in the water. Off to the east was the Otto E. Eckert power plant and its billowing smoke stacks. But I had guessed right, because I found another cave of graffiti. Broken, empty bottles, bird droppings and graffiti. On a wall facing the water was written “Zee5”; a silver tag that stood out among all of the others because of its size and shape. It had been tagged over in spots and it seemed to shimmer against the river.'