There are two kinds of art in public places: sanctioned and unsanctioned. In the first case, an artist is probably “commissioned” to create or place a work of art in a public building, a park or some other agreed upon location. Performers who purchase a license for busking or for various performances at approved locations, such as the Railyard Park, also fall under the category of sanctioned, although with greater distrust from authorities.
Performers that engage the public without having bothered to pay a fee, or artists who leave their mark in freehand spray paint or stencil work are, on a technical level, either disturbing the peace, assembling without a permit or practicing vandalism. Depending on the situation, there may be trespassing and any number of other crimes involved as well.
The current national spotlight on Shepard Fairey—famous below the radar for his Andre the Giant stencils and above the radar for his Obama “Hope” poster—signals a good moment to revisit our treatment of unsanctioned art. Fairey was arrested on Feb. 6, 2009 as he approached the opening of his solo exhibition at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art. He was charged with nearly 30 counts (vandalism, wanton destruction of property, etc.) related to a few stencils he had placed around the city. On July 10, Fairey was sentenced to two years probation and fined $2,500.
Fairey is not the world’s most original or interesting street artist, but he is among the most publicly visible. His work, while somewhat bland, is relatively innocuous in that the images are crisp and graphic and aesthetically placed for visibility in a manner that tends away from destruction, at least compared to graffiti writers who use their cans more like phallic extensions than as creative mediums. Sadly, this last breed is the most common in Santa Fe, where very few midnight spray-can attacks may be categorized as art; the talent pool is thin and the placement is based on territorialism and machismo rather than aesthetics or context.
But what can we deduce about the priorities or cultural vitality of a society that condones, for example, disruptive mass advertising media and forests of crass commercialism in our common spaces while rebuffing self-instigated self-expression as acts that merit the heavy hand of law enforcement? In Santa Fe, we remain mercifully protected from the invasion of billboards—although some signage is pushing the limits—so we might be forgiven as less hypocritical than many other cities.
Still, street art remains, by consensus of authority, a problem rather than a celebration. In another charming, tourist-oriented colonial city with coffers dependent on visitors admiring its simple beauty—Oaxaca, Mexico—it is common for property owners to demarcate a section of wall as a free space for stenciling and graffiti, an offering that is largely respected by spray-can bandits. The fact that widespread adoption of such a practice here would make Santa Fe shit a city-sized adobe brick might be evidence of civic pride, but it is equal evidence of our disrespect for protest, for creativity delivered outside the accepted cultural apparatus and for the process of youth itself.
In Santa Fe, it’s necessary to structure an entire organization around youth in order to justify donating a wall to public expression. Which leads to the question posed on the side of the building of the organization in question, Warehouse 21: “Why is this wall still so blank?”
Executive Director Ana Gallegos y Reinhardt has suggested that some portion of the wall might be used in memorial to the June 28 car accident victims. That’s certainly a step in the right direction, but the already hyper-managed use of the building’s other “art walls” makes one wonder how much openness will be allowed. W21 has earned the respect of the city’s youth and it shows, but it may be time for the organization’s constituency to give notice that it’s tired of waiting for permission or management: It’s time to paint.