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Counter Offensive: Street Art Gains Ground in Old North Columbus

Jeff Regensburger Jeff Regensburger Counter Offensive: Street Art Gains Ground in Old North Columbus
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This spring has seen a renewed interest in the fight against graffiti in Columbus. While these efforts have yet to achieve the official designation of a “war”, citizen’s groups and law enforcement agencies are clearly approaching the Columbus graffiti issue with renewed vigor. More than that, they’re having success. On May 19th 10TV reported on the City Prosecutor’s initiative to apprehend central Ohio’s four “most wanted” taggers. By the end of the month, two of them (Menaged and Lamblez) had been arrested.

This emphasis on enforcement and criminal prosecution is hardly limited to Columbus. High profile London street artist Tox was arrested in June, as was Los Angeles artist Revok.

For my part, I’ve always been able to see both sides of the graffiti/street art debate. Defenders of graffiti inevitably point out the expressive nature of the form, its adoption by mainstream sources as a visual idiom, and the skill required to execute complex works. Detractors call it costly vandalism, plain and simple.

What’s most interesting (and perhaps most confounding) is that both sides are right. Graffiti and street art are expressive mediums. They do take a certain amount of skill. They have been adopted into the mainstream. They’re also – by and large – illegal. Given this state of affairs, it might be helpful to remind ourselves of two points. First, the illicit nature of graffiti/street art doesn’t prohibit us from discussing its expressive or aesthetic features. Second, the expressive and aesthetic features of graffiti don’t give it a free pass. You can’t paint on or alter other people’s property without their permission and expect them to like it. Rather, what you should expect is that they’ll resent it.

The waters are further muddied by the wide range of graffiti and street art being produced. Works range from tags and throw ups to complex murals and representational stencils. My hunch is that when you hear people complain about graffiti, it’s the tags and throw ups they’re responding to. These are ubiquitous. They are the signatures of particular individuals or groups painted ad nauseum across whatever surface might be available. They’re simple, monochromatic, repetitive and hold little visual interest. They are executed quickly, and as such sacrifice aesthetic considerations in favor of speed. By contrast, murals, pieces, stencils, wheat pastes, and sculptures represent a more advanced side of the graffiti/street art spectrum.

Which brings us to the Old North Columbus (ONC)/South of Hudson (SoHu) neighborhood. There’s always been a smattering of street art in the area. Some are works that have stood the test of time and become, at least locally, notable fixtures. Others are more recent and make up a perceptible increase (a counter offensive?) in the amount of street art and graffiti in the area. Recently I spent part of an afternoon photographing a number of the pieces in that area. Since graffiti and street art are transitory by nature, this documentation is an important part of the process. The work you see today could very well be gone tomorrow. What property owners don’t eradicate, nature eventually will.

As I went about this self-guided street art tour what struck me most was the range of work that was being produced. Stencils, spray paint, poetry and fiber all made an appearance. The scale of the works was also notable. By and large these are pieces that are pedestrian friendly; the kinds of things that would likely be missed if you simply drove through the neighborhood. In that sense they reward people who walk and look.

I was most excited by the appearance of two yarn bombs in the neighborhood. Since three-dimensional street art isn’t particularly well represented in Columbus anything remotely sculptural usually piques my interest. Plus, I love the way these yarn bombs re-frame the mostly private act of knitting by placing it squarely in the public realm. Like most good art, it’s a transformative act; one that allows the medium to transcend our culturally assigned notions. Yarn bombs also serve to highlight the contrast between our machine-made, urban landscape and the more hand-made environs of our ancestors.

I was also happy with the recent work done on the property at the intersection of Hudson and Summit. This building’s north-facing wall had become what one resident referred to as “a petri dish of shitty tags”. Then, one day, as if by magic, it was covered with hearts and flowers. It doesn’t necessarily look any better, but the fact is it says so much more. The rendering is lyrical, almost doodley; like the kind of thing a fifth-grader might draw on the back of their notebook while contemplating their most current crush. I like to imagine it’s a giant of love letter to the neighborhood as well as a reminder that the larger themes of beauty and love might still prevail over self interest.

I should note too that this particular wall is scheduled to receive a community mural this summer thanks in part to interested community volunteers, Wild Goose Creative, and some GCAC Neighborhood Arts Grant money. More info on this initiative can be found on the Facebook page of the (unfortunately named) SoHud Community Mural Project. (SoHu people, please.)

Older works in the neighborhood include two paintings by Vinchen; arguably the most well known street artist in Columbus. Like much of Vinchen’s work, Siamese Twins, and The New Face of Mortgages juxtapose social commentary with easily recognizable images. The line on Vinchen is that he/she is a second-rate Banksy imitator. That’s a charge I’ve never found particularly fair or useful. Appropriation has been a part of the currency of art throughout its history. Banksy borrowed liberally from Blek le Rat; Braque borrowed from Picasso; Ribera borrowed from Carravaggio; and on down the line. If you’re put off by borrowing, stealing, influencing, and appropriating, then the visual arts might not be for you (Oh yeah, steer clear of popular music too).

James Coburn, Mickey Mouse, a bit of wheat paste poetry and a folksy looking barber pole round out the works this immediate neighborhood. I’m sure there’s more, and that’s really part of the fun of street art. Sometimes it just appears for you, and sometimes you have to find it.

While I appreciate the frustration of property owners and businesses who spend time and money cleaning up graffiti, I think it’s worth noting that at least some of what we see can be examined outside the context of petty crime. These are works that demonstrate both a sense of aesthetics and a desire to communicate. At the very least they provide visual evidence that creative and energetic people live and work here. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Jeff Regensburger is a painter, librarian, and drummer in the (currently dormant) rock combo The Patsys. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts (Painting and Drawing) from The Ohio State University in 1990 and an Master’s Degree in Library Science from Kent State University in 1997. Jeff blogs sporadically (OnSummit.blogspot.com), tweets occasionally (@jeffrey_r), and paints as time allows.

Artwork credits:

Artist Unknown (possibly Stackhouse)
James Coburn
c. 2011
stencil, paint
approx. 42 x 42 in

Artist Unknown
Mickey, Gosh!
c. 2011
stencil, paint
approx. 36 x 12 in

Artist Unknown (possibly D.H.)
Scallop Shells
c. 2010
stencil, paint, wheat paste
approx. 18 x 36 in

Vinchen
Siamese Twins
c. 2000 – 2010
stencil, paint
approx. 36 x 48 in

Artist Unknown
Portrait
c. 2005 – 2011
stencil, paint
approx 18 x 12 in

Vinchen
The New Face of Mortgages
c. 2005 – 2011
stencil, paint
approx 36 x 72 in

Artist Unknown
Yarn Bomb (Street Sign)
c. 2010 – 2011
yarn, fiber, zip ties, street sign
approx 42 x 5 x 5 in

Artist Unknown
Yarn Bomb (Telephone Pole)
c. 2010 – 2011
yarn, fiber, telephone poll
approx 18 x 24 in

Artist(s) Unknown
Wall (Hudson and Summit)
c. 2009 – 2011
paint
approx 20 x 100 ft

Artist(s) Unknown
Wall: detail (Hudson and Summit)
c. 2009 – 2011
paint
approx 20 x 100 ft

Artist(s) Unknown
Wall: detail (Hudson and Summit)
c. 2009 – 2011
paint
approx 20 x 100 ft

Artist Unknown
Barber Pole and Wind Vane
date unknown
paint, wood, metal
approx 60 x 10 in

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