The public tends to view graffiti negatively; it is often washed away almost as quickly as it appears. Graffiti, however, can take a wide variety of forms, from the most basic expressions of youthful rebellion to the enchanting works of artists like Banksy. When it is created in the context of an impactful movement, street art can achieve a cultural significance that is hard to ignore.
Take the murals painted around City Hall during Occupy L.A., for example. Painted on plywood walls erected to protect monuments from the occupiers, the murals are covered with symbols, slogans and other creative interpretations of the movement.
These murals are sure to strike a chord in this university, as Occupy L.A. touched USC in a variety of ways. Students left and right raised awareness, spoke out against it and even participated in the protests.
When the park was cleared, the walls were taken down. A month later, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs called for museums, galleries, arts organizations or educational institutions to store and exhibit the artwork. The Occupy L.A. website quickly denounced the idea, saying that the artwork was by the people and for the people. Protestors claimed that the murals should be returned to them so they — not the city officials — could decide who would preserve them.
Are the creators of graffiti art entitled to ask for it back? History says otherwise.
Some of the most famous graffiti in the world can be found on the Berlin Wall. The wall remained operational for more than 40 years, dividing West and East Berlin and serving as a potent symbol for oppression and divisiveness.
Walking in Berlin, one can still see fragments of the wall throughout the city. They are covered in art, accumulated from decades of frustration. The city proudly exhibits them as a testament to the hardships it has endured and to the creativity of the people responsible for the murals.
No one has asked for the art back. The graffiti symbolizes Berliner’s views of the wall, of what it stands for. Their message is one of freedom.
This context makes Occupy L.A.’s response seem comical. The occupiers’ demands for the return of the artwork seem to stem more out of an animosity for city hall than a wish for the art to remain “of the people.”
The city wants to exhibit these works for the people of Los Angeles. It could have very easily disposed of them after the clean up. Instead, it chose to do as Berlin had done and recognized them as a part of its history. What is this complaint if not a knee-jerk response against any association with the city’s government? Does the fact that the city is trying to exhibit the work make it somehow oppressive?
The leaders of what remains of the Occupy movement are merely finding fault in anything they can, so that their complaints will be publicized, and the movement won’t fade away just yet. It is along the lines of PETA asking SeaWorld to free their Orcas because of the 13th amendment.
It is the kind of movement whose polarizing nature demands attention. The Occupy protesters either inspired or inspired contempt. To some, they were heroes; to others, they were slobs. But in the end, they were always driving discussion; they occupied the news along with their respective lawns. Though the height of this movement has probably passed, it still manages to create new points of contention.
This mural issue is a prime example. But if the protestors continue to complain about the city’s decision, they risk becoming a farce.
Daniel Grzywacz is a sophomore majoring in neuroscience and anthropology. His column “72 Degrees and Shaking” runs Wednesdays.