D.C. Mural Jam Aims to Create Positive Venue for Graffiti Art

By Martin Ricard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 20, 2009

As the 20-year-old graffiti artist stood in broad daylight Saturday morning and aimed his spray paint at a concrete retaining wall behind the Rhode Island Avenue Shopping Center, the pleasant greeting of a passerby startled him.

He nervously put down the paint can and looked over his shoulder. For the past couple of weeks, he had been tagging his alias, AERA, throughout the area at night, with no one around to catch him in the act or disrupt his creative flow.

"Okay," the artist said he thought to himself as he resumed his work, "this is a little weird."

But on this day, spray-painting graffiti on public property, an act that would have been against the law any other time, was all good. It was part of a "mural jam," a city-sponsored project that drew dozens of graffiti artists to contribute their flair to a nearly 1,000-foot-long wall turned canvas in Northeast's Edgewood community.

The goal of the project is to beautify the city and dissuade youths from engaging in illegal graffiti. But it represents a broader shift in thinking among the city's political and art establishments, which are beginning to learn how to coexist with a graffiti culture that has thrived for years.

"We decided that just painting over [graffiti] with one color was not the answer," said Gloria Nauden, executive director of the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, which authorized the murals. "You have to embrace them as artists, give them freedom. It's about the respect and allowance of not being defined."

From when tags began to show up scrawled across buildings and other public property in the District in the 1970s, the city has been struggling to find ways to eradicate what has long been viewed as vandalism.

The city has been forceful in its attempt to crack down on graffiti, including beefing up its graffiti abatement program in the Public Works Department and tracking down and arresting taggers. But like weeds sprouting through pavement, graffiti artists, many of them young people striving to claim a unique identity, have managed to survive.

Instead of viewing the graffiti artists as enemies, city officials have caught on to the idea of embracing them.

It started last year with MuralsDC, a $100,000 city-funded project spearheaded by D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) that connected teenagers with well-known graffiti artists to paint murals throughout the city to cover areas hardest hit by taggers. The underlying belief in the program was that by incorporating the graffiti artists in the creation of the murals, young people would be reluctant to participate in illegal tagging.

The efforts seem to have made a dent, Nauden said. Last fiscal year, the Public Works Department reported 1,948 incidents of graffiti on the buildings it monitors, spokeswoman Nancee Lyons said. This fiscal year, as of June, the department had received 695 incident reports, a significant decline.

"I don't know whether we can attribute it all to the mural project," Lyons said. "But it seems to be making a bit of a difference."


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