TAG— You’re it!

Graffiti originated in urban areas and was associated with hip hop culture, along with DJing and break dancing.

Graffiti originated in urban areas and was associated with hip hop culture, along with DJing and break dancing. -Tyler Bierwirth

He shook a black paint spray can as he crossed Mississippi Street, opposite Memorial Stadium. The moon hung in the air like a single illuminated window in an otherwise vacant building. In cursive letters, he painted “love” on the red wooden door of a cement garage.

Sammy Owen said he also pasted a screen print, a poster made by passing ink through a mesh screen, of Artemisia Gentileschi on the door that night in 2007. The screen print of Gentileschi, a famous female Italian painter, was adapted from a self-portrait she painted in the 1630s. Together, the spray-painted word and print of Gentileschi — her head tilted, a paint brush in hand — made it appear like the unruly-haired artist was painting “love” on the garage door.

The screen print lasted about two months, Owen said, but “love” remained. Appearing in the backdrop of KU student self-portraits and engagement photos, the graffiti has became an iconic image on campus.

“I never thought either the paste or the word would last longer than a week across from a football stadium, much less become iconic,” Owen said.

Deb Spencer, the owner of the garage, said the wooden door was a target for hate-filled messages long before the word “love” appeared. She constantly painted over graffiti, eventually deciding to paint the white door a deep red to deter further vandalism. When the word “love” appeared, the curse words and controversial messages stopped, Spencer said. The door was no longer regarded as a bathroom stall-like canvas, but a work of art, worthy of being left alone.

“I’m glad that it stopped the vandalism,” she said. “I’m glad that it is there.”

While the Lawrence community casted its vote on the love piece, the line between graffiti as a form of street art or vandalism is painted with aerosol. It’s thin and drips.

Graffiti originated in urban areas and was associated with hip hop culture, along with DJing and break dancing.

Graffiti originated in urban areas and was associated with hip hop culture, along with DJing and break dancing. -Tyler Bierwirth

At the corner of Eighth and Massachusetts streets, on a rust-colored panel next to a Commerce Bank ATM, a pink and blue painted bird twists its head downward to its thin yellow legs. Simon Bates, the owner of Esquina, said he commissioned local high school students to paint the bird as well as the bathrooms inside of his restaurant.

“At first, we contacted a couple of guys that do graffiti, but they were really expensive,” Bates said. “The high school kids went at it for free, for fun.”

Bates, who had never done graffiti before, wanted to join the fun. He sketched a design in a notebook; something he hadn’t done since middle school art class. Using the same bubble letters and bold colors he admired in graffiti he saw on his way to work while living in Chicago, he painted a large mural in the kitchen of his restaurant.

“It’s not perfect,” he said “But it’s better than I thought it would be.”

The artwork Bates commissioned is not the only graffiti to adorn his building. The back of the restaurant, facing the alley, is a choice site for tagging. Tagging, the most basic form of graffiti, often consists of a single-colored stylized signature.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “I’m always the one who has to paint over them.”

According to Lawrence Police Department Policy 14-1003, “The existence of graffiti upon any structural component of any building, wall, fence, sidewalk, curb, or structure or other facility on public or private property with the City of Lawrence, Kansas is declared to be a public nuisance and it shall be the duty of the property owner with property defaced by graffiti to remove, abate, or cover such graffiti.”

Robert Neff, the Lawrence police officer who oversees the Graffiti Removal Program, said the property owner would be given two weeks to cover or remove graffiti. If the graffiti was not taken care of in that time, the owner would be given another notification, Neff said. He said there was no legal consequence of failing to remove the graffiti, other than constant reminders to do so by the LPD.

The same cannot be said for graffiti artists who are caught.

One night last spring, Ivan was on the roof of Foxtrot, 823 Massachusetts St., tagging with friends when they were caught by the LPD.

Graffiti originated in urban areas and was associated with hip hop culture, along with DJing and break dancing.

Graffiti originated in urban areas and was associated with hip hop culture, along with DJing and break dancing. -Tyler Bierwirth

Ivan, who did not want his last name disclosed, said there was no escape. He pressed his body against a wall on the roof, as instructed, and waited to be handcuffed. It’s been about 11 months since and Ivan has yet to complete his mandated community service hours.

Ivan tagged for three months before he was caught. Part of the enjoyment he received from tagging was the thrill, he said, scaling city structures and breaking into abandoned buildings. But, he also found a sense of community. He met people of all ages and backgrounds who wanted to share in the dialogue. The community, like the art itself, was an evolving body. It continuously changed because of artists getting caught, moving away or losing interest, he said. In their place, new artists arrived, wanting to try their hand at graffiti.

Neff, the Lawrence police officer, said if a property owner found a piece of unauthorized graffiti on his or her property and liked it, there was nothing to stop him or her from keeping it.

“That’s OK by the law, I suppose, if it’s really pretty,” Neff said.

Owen, the graffiti artist who painted “love,” said he felt bombarded with billboard advertisements, store markers and street signs. These messages are generated by outsiders and leave little room for a two-way conversation, he said.

“Street art has the ability to reclaim some of that dialogue,” Owen said.

  • Updated Apr. 5, 2012 at 6:48 am