When I spray-paint my masterpiece – After recent false starts, is there a future for public art in Louisville?

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Two years ago, graphic designer Jeral Tidwell was elated with the city’s decision to establish a wall where graffiti art could be practiced legally. After traveling across Europe — where legal walls are widespread — he was a voluble cheerleader who helped convince the Mayor’s Committee on Public Art that if Louisville was going to talk the talk about being a city open to new ideas, it should also walk the walk. 

“This is a country that invented hot rods and rock ’n’ roll,” says Tidwell, who recently finished designing a billboard for General Motors’ new electric car, the Volt. “But we were still afraid of art. I went to the city and said, ‘This is stupid.’” 

When LEO Weekly reported on the legal wall’s opening in 2006, the proposal for a legal graffiti art venue found little resistance from the mayor’s office. 

Photo by Elizabeth Kramer: Artists Jeral Tidwell and Sean Griffin at the legal graffiti wall in 2006.

Photo by Elizabeth Kramer: Artists Jeral Tidwell and Sean Griffin at the legal graffiti wall in 2006.

“The city was supportive,” says Tidwell, who worked with a group that included artists and people known in the city, such as Kristen Booker, Tyler Allen, Jay Jordan, Jo Anne Triplett and William Morrow, to bring the legal wall to fruition. 

Located on Market Street at the I-65 underpass between Hancock and Jackson streets, the Experimental Urban Art Project had a premium locale next to the burgeoning hub of art galleries that make up the bulk of the East Market Street arts district. The rules were rather simple: No racial epithets. No curse words. Respect your fellow artists’ work and leave it up for a decent amount of time. 

Tidwell and others were bumblebees of activity, volunteering to be “Wall Guardians” and encouraging other graffiti artists to spray out their unique visual voices. 

Eventually, the beautiful and intricate urban murals were infected with words like fuck, shit, nigger and piss, along with hack-scratch like “Trust Jesus” scrawled haphazardly across the wall. The city eventually decommissioned the wall in April 2007, quietly dispatching workers to paint it a solid off-white one afternoon. 

Photo by Sara Havens: The once-legal wall as of last week.

Photo by Sara Havens: The once-legal wall as of last week.

“We had people who were putting up racial slurs and other obscenities, plus the graffiti extended beyond the wall and into the surrounding neighborhood,” Chris Poynter, a spokesperson for Mayor Abramson, says.

“The guys who ruined it weren’t artists at all,” says Tidwell. “They were hacks — the lame 15-year-old white kids from the suburbs who had no clue.”

The likelihood of the city sponsoring another legal wall is slim.

“We don’t have any plans right now,” Poynter says. When the wall closed last year, there were murmurs about creating a new one with tighter restrictions to avoid the unintended consequences, but the city has pivoted to what it clearly sees as bigger plans. Poynter tells LEO Weekly that Metro is now in the early stages of a master plan that includes hiring a consultant to spearhead a new committee that will encompass all public art. The city hopes to announce the hiring of the consultant by September, to coincide with the Idea Festival, Poynter says. 

The enthusiasm for the city’s wall had been contagious when it was commissioned in October 2006. 

“We began our wall shortly after the one downtown,” says Scott Scarboro, creative programming manager for the Mellwood Arts & Entertainment Center. “I had been thinking about it for awhile, but when I saw Jeral, he showed me what was going on. We duplicated it and organized it here.” 

Though they enjoyed the organic evolution of the Mellwood wall, a similar thing began happening. Amid complaints from neighbors and possible fines from the city for obscenity and tagging on surrounding property, Mellwood shut down its wall five months ago. Scarboro tells LEO Weekly that the center still has an area where graffiti art is allowed, but artists need an invitation from management and a permit. “I don’t know if we’ll ever have an active wall like before,” he says.

For local taggers who seemed to be gaining momentum and legitimacy in their own backyard, optimism has faded. The loss of legal venues coincides with the introduction of stiffer penalties and surveillance that further criminalizes the act: Seeking to reduce the amount of graffiti in Louisville’s parks, Metro Parks announced last month a partnership with Kentuckiana Crime Stoppers, offering cash rewards of up to $500 for anyone with information about vandalism in public parks.

“We spend too much staff time, and too many taxpayer dollars, repairing vandalism and graffiti,” says Mike Heitz, director of Metro Parks. According to the agency, in 2007, Louisville’s park system suffered $80,500 damages in graffiti, vandalism and theft. 

The great leap backward — from commissioning a public wall for artists to offering a $500 bounty — has certainly had an effect at the ground level. Artists say they are noticing that law enforcement cracks down harder on graffiti than before. Instead of a figurative kick in the pants and the snatching of your spray paint, Tidwell says artists are being arrested and their cars impounded. He’s not the only one. 

“I’ve heard of a lot more people getting in serious trouble,” says Braylyn Stewart, a graffiti artist for the past decade. “There’s a definite increase against graf writers.” 

Metro Police spokesman Officer Phil Russell says police have not been given instructions to escalate enforcement on graffiti artists, who no longer have the cover provided by a legal wall. “Someone without legal permission, whether graffiti art or vandalism, (it) is considered a misdemeanor offense,” he says. Police patrol and respond mostly in areas with a high volume of complaints about damages from businesses and homeowners, Russell says. There had been a slew of complaints from businesses around the city’s East Market wall. 

For artists, however, the escalation in surveillance from Metro Parks coupled with the dearth of public-art venues is a sign that it may be time to search other cities. 

 “I don’t have anymore business in Louisville,” Tidwell says. Many legitimate artists who were cooperative and partnered with the city when the legal wall was erected, Tidwell claims, are the first ones questioned during a search for vandals. 

“There’s no separation anymore,” he says.

Stewart says he’s given up on underground tagging and invested in commercial avenues. “We decided to go legit,” he says. The crew he works with now travels to different art shows and offered their work to the annual Forecastle Festival this summer. Stewart also started his own clothing line, called SAF. “I’m doing pretty good,” he says. 

Ultimately, don’t expect a sea change in the perspective of city policy. Poynter, Mayor Abramson’s spokesman, is mum about whether graffiti art would be included in the master plan for public art. The legal wall was always an “experimental” idea, he adds.

“We all recognize there’s a difference from the Tidwells of Louisville and a kid who vandalizes public property,” Poynter says. “Obviously, we never want to lose artists. This is a conversation we’re going to be having that will look at everything from sculpture to tagging. If the graffiti artists want to open up another venue, we’re open to it, but we can’t have it like last time.”

Artists who have taken their colorful aerosol designs to neighboring cities, where anonymity is priceless and enforcement is lighter, may leave a void in Louisville, where reviews about the graffiti scene since the legal walls’ demise are mixed.

“It’s not going to die,” says Stewart. “For every one person who hates it, 10 people appreciate the artistic aspects.” 

For others, though, the pessimism has yet to crest. When asked about the future of graffiti art in Louisville, Tidwell, perhaps the most acclaimed artist in Possibility City, seems fatigued. 

“Honestly, I could give two shits,” he says.