Graffiti vs. or = Art?


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If you have ever been to Garfield Park during the evening, early on in the summer, the following might describe the scene: The city pool guards are running life-saving drills in the pool. The ice-cream truck is cranking out a warbly nursery tune from rusted speakers with a line forming of children holding a dollar or two in hand. Tuckered out neighbors are lamenting the humidity while sharing a cigarette on a park bench. Young kids are playing in and around the playground. Typical summer sounds, smells and going-ons at the park.

Having never played softball as a girl, ironically enough I found myself in a league this summer where we played at Garfield. Mind you, this was not a serious bunch of players. In fact, so "unserious" were we that nobody coughed up any cash to reserve the official baseball diamond. We played near the diamond though...on grass. Car mats used as bases. No refs, just type-A personalities keeping score and stats. The league is one that involves participating art organizations who, along with appreciating high-brow art, also love to swing a bat and catch a pop-up. You are intimidating if your team wears matching shirts.

One of those lovely evenings, I played ball but also brought along my youngest boy George and his best friend in the world Jasper. These two make for a funny pair. George is topped with short dark hair. Jasper has a cap of long blond hair, almost as if he has a set of earflaps on either side of his head. George bosses and Jasper follows. They talk about going to Purdue University and being roommates. When Jasper worries that he won't make good grades, his solution is that George will tutor him. Their friendship is all figured out...for years.


After a visit to the ice cream truck and mucking it up around the teams, they decided it was time to head to the playground for some real fun. About twenty minutes later, I saw two little bodies, one dark head and one light head, heading our direction. When the boys reached me, their faces were beaded with sweat and brows were furrowed. "Mom," whispered George, "Jasper and I saw two bad words written on the stone building." I had to remind myself to look concerned rather than amused. "Somebody wrote the F word three times and the B word one time." I stepped away from the field and explained what graffiti was to the boys. When I got done with what probably seemed like a monologue, George looked up at me and asked about the man on the side of the building. "What man?"

"The famous writer, Mom." He remembered Kurt Vonnegut on the Massala Building at 345 Mass Ave.

"Is that graffiti, Mom?"

I once read a bit in a book about the job of a journalist that I found in alignment with public art and sometimes even some graffiti. The journalist wrote that by highlighting problems, she was helping to bring the discussion forward, and that made a difference. So the times when we drive by the 46 for XLVI murals in and around the city, I always think of that. These mural artists are bringing forth a conversation starter regarding our culture, be it in the past, present or future. Whether it be Pamela Bliss and her portrayal of documentarian photographer Duncan Scheidt and the four great jazz artists on the side of the Musician's Repair and Sales Building or the FAB Crew's aerosol paint mural of a favorite Midwest tradition (fishing), it gets people thinking, "Why that? Why is that there?" and "Who is that?" and "How did they do that?"

If I could go back to that day with George, that's what I would have included in my teacher-from-the-Peanuts' monologue ("wahwahwah"). Something like, "George, those words you saw on the side of the Garfield Park building were an expression. But it wasn't anything that made you ask more questions or want to see more or even stay awhile to look longer. Those words made you run and find me. But these murals ... let's talk awhile."


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