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October 3, 2006

Making it legal: Mayor’s Committee on Public Art creates legit venue for graffiti art

Some of the players: involved with the new graffiti wall on East Market Street. Standing, from left to right, Jo Anne Triplett and Bob Markert, members of the Mayor’s Committee on Public Art, and Cynthia Knapek from Operation Brightside. In front, artists Jeral Tidwell and Se“We all need a place for Some of the players: involved with the new graffiti wall on East Market Street. Standing, from left to right, Jo Anne Triplett and Bob Markert, members of the Mayor’s Committee on Public Art, and Cynthia Knapek from Operation Brightside. In front, artists Jeral Tidwell and Se voice,” says Jeral Tidwell, the “lowbrow” graphics artist whose own fervent voice has helped convince the mayor’s office, no less, that legal graffiti art may become the next cultural asset for Louisville. Tidwell’s travels in Europe, where legal graffiti walls are prevalent, and his knowledge of how the graffiti artist community operates, convince him that Louisville could soon be part of a growing international circuit, which is helping to nurture a maturing field of art. Graffiti art, he argues, has surpassed its origins as an illicit form of expression: “It’s evolved and grown up. It’s full-blown art work.”Tidwal adds: “Graffiti is one of the only art forms people travel all over the world just to do.” He’s optimistic that The Experimental Urban Art Project may be a draw for some of the best practitioners in the field.But what excites Tidwell and members of the mayor’s Committee on Public Art, is the democratic and open nature of the graffiti wall. Tidwell says he is “putting the word out everywhere” that the wall is open to “whoever shows up” and wants to add to it.The wall, or rather walls, are located on Market Street in the I-65 underpass between Hancock and Jackson streets, just west of the cluster of galleries that constitute the core of the East Market art district. The project will kick off with this Friday’s First Friday East Market Street Gallery Hop, and continue over the next year. Anyone can come to the wall, at any time, in the next year and add their work to it. Artists must provide their own materials.A few understandable rules apply: no gang tagging, no offensive language, no “nudity or sex acts,” no messages or images that promote violence, and no advertisements. And, though no works on the wall will be considered “sacred” or permanent, it is hoped that artists will allow work that’s been dated to remain up for two weeks, and that the best works will be the last to be covered up by other artists.Tidwell and fellow artist Sean Griffin have volunteered to be the “Wall Guardians” for the duration of the project. They will help contributors understand the parameters of the project, and will cover over any inappropriate material.It may come as a surprise to some that Tidwell’s dream, of a legal graffiti art venue in Louisville, not only met little resistance from the mayor’s Committee on Public Art, but that the committee was already looking for such an opportunity.Sanctioned graffiti art: isn’t uncommon in Europe. This photo was taken this spring in Berlin, where a competition was held to bring contemporary art to the masses by using public spaces to define or re-interpret the surrounding territory. Photo by Cary Stemle“It’s been one of my dreams for several years,” says Bob Markert, a committee member. Markert helped form a mural subcommittee early last year, in the hope of generating legal graffiti art projects.Jo Anne Triplett, another member of the committee (and also the free-lance Arts Editor for LEO), introduced Tidwell to the committee after he expressed his ideas for a graffiti wall to her, separately, five or six months after the committee formed.It would seem hard to, actually, “deface” such an inhospitable and nondescript landmark as the I-65 underpass, which has few inherent or intended aesthetic qualities. But it is, as Tidwell describes it, “the gateway to the Sanctioned graffiti art: isn’t uncommon in Europe. This photo was taken this spring in Berlin, where a competition was held to bring contemporary art to the masses by using public spaces to define or re-interpret the surrounding territory. Photo by Cary Stemle art district.” As such, it seems to be a fitting spot, since it is the area that best embodies the city’s experimentation with urban renewal through art.Graffiti is “anarchy” in the art world. Now a synonym for “chaos,” in its earlier form, as a political philosophy, “anarchy” expressed an incredible faith in human nature, assuming that political authority is often needless and inhibits personal autonomy. So too, the implementation of the Experimental Urban Art Project reflects a remarkable amount of optimism about human nature. For city government to actively encourage open expression from “the street” might have been unthinkable a few decades ago.But, as with the Extreme Park, civic leaders are discovering that the best approach to the disaffected is to demonstrate that you want to find a place in your community for them. And that this type of approach is a real civic and economic asset.Tidwell himself is a great example of how it’s working. A native of New Orleans, he’s an artist inspired by art from the streets: graffiti, tattoos, etc. Not material you’d identify, at first, with the “family friendly” description Louisville has often embraced. But Tidwell moved here, specifically, because he says, “Louisville, Kentucky, is one of the coolest cities I’ve been to.”To read more about the project, go to www.louisvilleky.gov/publicart.