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Mary Thiefels sees

Elimination Games

Ann Arbor takes aim at graffiti.

by Greg Dobrin

From the December, 2012 issue

London had its summer Olympics. Ann Arbor has a more regular match. It isn't necessarily seasonal, and it certainly isn't sport. It's the hide-and-seek chasing down of spray-can-wielding outlaws.

Tag, you're it, Ann Arbor.

More than tagged, the town has been marked, mural'd and occasionally mired in what some view as renegade beauty and others call outright vandalism. Even the bark of Tree Town's namesakes isn't off limits.

Three years ago, city council saw the writing on local walls and strengthened the town's graffiti ordinance. In the fall of last year, the city again beefed up abatement efforts through the police department's Office of Community Standards.

Purely cultural or plainly criminal, most graffiti simply violates the state's malicious destruction of property law, says Lt. Renee Bush, who oversees the unit.

It's a double whammy for property owners. According to the ramped-up city ordinance, "No person who owns or otherwise controls or manages any property shall permit or allow any Graffiti to be or remain on any surface or structure on the property beyond the time indicated in a notice ..."

In other words, property owners--the victims, that is--are held responsible for cleanup. The city makes exceptions, but, technically, owners have seven days to eliminate graffiti. If they don't do it, the city will ... for a charge.

Over at the U-M, graffiti is a matter of chalk. It's also a matter of position--horizontal or vertical. "As long as it's done in chalk, then it's permissible," explains public information officer Diane Brown. But only if it's on a horizontal surface, such as a sidewalk.

Campus cops are vigilant about graffiti elsewhere, says Brown, particularly at hard-hit top levels of parking structures, noting that some cases dovetail with those of city police. As reported by, two taggers, both Ann Arbor teens, were arrested in early 2012 on felony and misdemeanor charges. One of them, Brown says, was also accused of tagging the campus.

In 2009, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) joined the graffiti elimination

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games, offering $2,000 worth of abatement tools in partnership with Anderson Paint and Fingerle Lumber. The companies can provide downtown property owners with a variety of materials, including the trademarked paint remover Elephant Snot.

The strategy is to reduce graffiti by lifting some of its elephantine load from the vandalized, DDA executive director Susan Pollay explains: "They have to actually go through the effort of trying to remove it ...we're trying to lessen the burden on them."

John Fingerle, president and co-owner of Fingerle Lumber (which sees its own share of graffiti), says the DDA program attracts a fairly steady stream of customers. Anderson Paint's general manager, John Rudolph, says requests spike during bouts of media attention. The DDA underwrites up to $25 per purchase, while allotments last.

With the 2012 arrests, which reportedly included a twenty-two-year-old male, the town's anti-graffiti posture has proved more than mere exercise. The muscle may not yet be Olympian: some say the graffiti problem is worse, some say it's lessened. But Pollay says the DDA program has an impact, that markings now appear mostly in the outer neighborhoods. A cursory tour seems to support that observation.

One thing most people working on the problem agree on is that graffiti begets graffiti. The sooner you eliminate it, the less likely more will appear.

The opposite is true at Ali Baba's, the popular Middle Eastern eatery just off the DDA grid at Packard and Hill, where two street-level tags--side-by-side duplicate white inscriptions--are so neatly positioned they might've been added as decoration by the restaurant. They weren't. The building is tagged with such unrelenting frequency, says co-owner Karam Dari, he's given up covering it. "I got sick of painting," he says. "And painting and painting and painting."


For Ann Arbor-based Artrain, paint-overs are as futile as they are costly. As viewed from the river path, the nonprofit's Pullman is a carload of mostly bubble-style graffiti. Located on leased tracks alongside its NEW Center offices and currently under renovation, the Artrain's easterly exterior doesn't, as you might expect it would, intentionally represent the traveling art outreach organization that owns it.

"It's vandalism," says Artrain, Inc., CEO Debra Polich, but removing it would cost close to $2,000, and the graffiti at least provides a buffer against further tagging. It's also an irony of ironies, allows Polich, for a group that in the late 1980s held a controversial competition in which graffiti artists around the country painted actual rail cars. (The Ann Arbor car, in place since 1993, wasn't one of them.)

For real graffiti burnout, consider what happened at a vacant and extensively tagged apartment building at 1500 Pauline. Already slated for demolition, the entire complex, including its graffiti-emblazoned Pauline frontage, was swept by fire and bulldozed in October. According to, the flame-engulfed scrawls included inflammatory sentiments directed at police.

Expletives of a non-exclusive nature appeared recently behind Knight's Market at 420 Miller (another site just beyond DDA program reach). When the tag was painted over, a pasted-on, letter-sized applique materialized in its stead--it, too, showcasing four-letter words. "It's a never-ending thing," says manager Vernon Bedolla.

Ann Arbor, of course, is far from alone in its tagging woes. London, famous for its Big Brother-ish closed-circuit security cameras, underwent a drastic graffiti clampdown in the run-up to the summer Olympic games (as reported in particular by the London Vandal, an online zine and graffiti supply store). It was just the latest chapter in an age-old graffiti story. When it comes to besmirching walls that don't belong to you, ancient Olympians were champion doodlers.

U-M classics professor David Potter, whose book The Victor's Crown deals with Greek and Roman sport from Homer to Byzantium, says Nemea, one of four main original Olympic sites (along with Isthmia, Olympia, and Delphi), is where most of the graffiti is found.

"You're just sitting around waiting," says Potter, "so you scribble things about the guy you're going to fight." Some of the writings are quite crude, Potter says.

And despite the mudslide of negative political ads suffered this election year, the ancients beat us in that arena, too, employing such graffiti sentiments as "All the prostitutes want to vote for this guy," scrawled on public walls in shameless perpetuity (as witnessed especially at Pompeii, preserved by volcanic ash).

Yes, modern Ann Arbor keeps its pace with humankind's ancestral habit of painting things where they don't belong. Take, for example, Liberty Street's "Graffiti Alley."

Local artist Mary Thiefels, whose TreeTown Murals is responsible for some of our best-loved mural art, recalls a time when Graffiti Alley was mostly murals-- "small, really neat pieces that artists obviously went in with brushes and thoughtfully painted different scenes."

Commissioned twenty years ago by the State Street Area Association (then run, as it happens, by the DDA's Pollay--"that alley always had graffiti," she remembers), the deck-of-cards-themed works existed for many years but were continually tagged.

"And now," says Thiefels, "you see what you see."

What you see is a phantasm of expression, from bubble lettering to bubble gum.

In 2001, developer Peter Allen commissioned Thiefels to do a mural on the abutment to the Ann Arbor Railroad trestle next to his offices on N. Main. The result--a lush, undulating view of the town, the river, and the bridge itself--is sanctioned by a waiver from the Ann Arbor Railroad, as are Thiefels' other trestle abutment murals around town.

"It's such a fine line," says Thiefels, a proponent of street art who doesn't condone vandalism. "I feel like it's [crossed the line] when people tag small businesses or when they're tagging private property." The muralist advises other young artists on how to do their art legally, but, she says, "I think a lot of artists, they're just testing the boundaries."

As for having her own work tagged, while it might seem disrespectful, it can also be collaborative. In the abutment under the AARR's Huron Street trestle, her rendering of a flower attracts flourishes which don't encroach, an example of artists "riffing" off each other.

"It's a dialogue," says Thiefels.


Art, wrote Stephen Sondheim tunefully, isn't easy. It also doesn't always happen when and where you want it. Consider the case of the Grizzly Peak building, where in late 2011 muralist "Shades" never finished his work and owners had to perform a strictly cosmetic dissing of it.

And then there's the Rock at the corner of Washtenaw and Hill (in what is actually city-owned George Washington Park), painted over so often by generations of wanton undergrads as to become a Wolverine tradition.

Anything but a dialogue between artists, the slathering began in the 1950s as a Michigan State prank with a green "S" on a then-pristine boulder-and-plaque tribute to Washington's 200th birthday. It's been a paint magnet ever since.

Though the Rock is sometimes repainted nightly, police say complaints are rare. Does this qualify as graffiti?

"I know it when I see it," Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously dithered in Jacobellis v. Ohio, a 1964 obscenity case. Stewart died in 1981, slightly before graffiti, the scofflaw language of warring urban gangs, became the province of rogue virtuosos working in an oeuvre of spray paint and wheat paste, their creative impulses manifesting overnight like crop circles.

It was the birth of the vandal as rock star. And since the 1980s heyday of such icons as Keith Haring, the commercial art world has embraced graffiti madly, with works selling in the six digits. Stephen Schudlich, who directs exhibitions for U-M School of Art and Design, says property owners can hit the jackpot when tagged by a popular non-commissioned artist.

In 2010, when famed British graffiti artist Banksy painted a wall at a deserted Detroit auto plant, a gallery sawed off the section, took it to their exhibition space, and displayed it under lights. According to the Detroit Free Press, the move sparked a firestorm over the ownership, value, and context of graffiti as art.

These days, says Schudlich, perpetrators likely spent time in art school. Even the word "graffiti" has advanced to academic respectability; it's become a credible art term, he says.

But vandalism by another name is still vandalism. At the old factory he owns on Felch, Rob Cleveland spent roughly $3,000 in early 2012 to eliminate an array of graffiti--only to see it repeated days later.

The second assault was malicious, says Cleveland, who had to hire a contractor to remove the mess. "They were spray painting over windows. They scratched their names into our skylights." According to an anonymous tip, it was intended as retaliation for the first cleanup. reported that a local teen--the tagger known as "Gexir"--was charged with the crime. For the Felch vandalism and another incident at a parking structure, he was given two years of probation, and ordered to pay $19,319.92 in restitution (plus $3,105 in court costs and fines).

Cleveland, CEO of Icon Interactive, one of several concerns housed at 220 Felch, says when his experience hit local media he had e-mails saying, "Yeah, me too, this is wretched, I spent thousands of dollars painting and sandblasting and to what end?"

Tagging, says Cleveland, doesn't compare with someone bleeding on the sidewalk, but the police nevertheless did a laudable job at 220 Felch. Even so, his impression is that the city is "horribly pressed" for adequate police resources.

"Horribly pressed" is an understatement in the opinion of one anonymous staffer we spoke to, who says that on a force cut by almost one-third over the past decade, responding to thousands of reports each year, an officer focused solely on graffiti would be "a luxury." According to Lt. Bush, activity has slowed "quite a bit" since the cooler weather. But the vacancy left by a retirement earlier this year has been filled--Community Standards recently assigned a new detective to the graffiti effort.

So if the learned Justice Stewart couldn't characterize pornography, what about graffiti?

The city's website defines it as "any mark or marks on any surface or structure made without the prior permission of the property owner and made in any manner, including but not limited to, writing, inscribing, drawing, tagging, sketching, spray-painting, painting, etching, scratching, carving, engraving, scraping, or attaching."

"It's a fine line between art and tagging and graffiti," says Lt. Bush.

Ah. That fine line again.

As for gang-related markings, Lt. Bush says the only local instance she's seen was in Ypsilanti, and it was likely a "copycat" insignia--in this case that of the Los Angeles Crips.

Duplicate graffiti, on the other hand, is relatively common, according to the U-M's Schudlich; some artists specialize in stencils and appliques. One of the best-known political images of all time, the Obama "Hope" poster, was created by such a mass duplicator, the self-described graffiti "writer" Shepherd Fairey, who, as reported by the Boston Globe, was arrested in early 2009 for tagging two sites in Beantown.

If tagging is considered a youth crime, Fairey, thirty-nine at the time of his arrest, breaks the stereotype. Nor do perpetrators fit the black, Latino, or Asian profile commonly linked to gang graffiti in large American cities. Fairey, a Los Angeles resident even at the time of his Boston arrest, is white, along with at least two of the recently apprehended Ann Arbor taggers.

Graffiti artists aren't exclusively male, either, according to reports--though some say the inherent dangers of isolated nighttime locations helps tip the gender balance.


So who's tagging Ann Arbor? According to a fifteen-year-old white, middle-class Pioneer High School student we'll call Mike, it's mostly people his own age. "It's an underground thing. It's really between the skaters and the stoners," he says. The more you tag, the more popular you become, says Mike--not at school, he's quick to point out, but around town. Everyone's aware of its illegality, he says.

Tagging can be a rite of passage. Mike says that to join one exclusive "group" (it's not a gang, he says), you have to tag at least thirty locations. In addition to spray paint, they gut marking pens and replace the tips with sponges for more ink coverage. Skaters sometimes use pre-tagged mailing labels. "They'll skate by and slap them places," says Mike.

Everyone has their own style, he says, showing me how a more experienced tagger instructed him to merge the letters in his tag for a more cryptic, personalized look. Some of the most popular tags among Mike's peers are "soap," "girl" (done on what Mike says is a paint-guzzling white background), and "mooh." Members of the skater tagging "tribe" also mark their skateboards with their own unique tags.

While taggers around town are mostly teens, says Mike, he's heard of some as old as thirty. Among the town's graffiti celebrities are the infamous Gexir, and also "K-R-K"--a tag that isn't easily intelligible. (The less readable a personal inscription, the cooler it is, says Mike.) Markings can include everything from symbols to lettering to directional arrows to faces and other images.

Why do they tag? It's not out of rebellion, destruction, or solely for outlaw risk, Mike says. It's mostly about fame and popularity. Only in cases as extreme as 220 Felch does Mike consider tagging vandalism. He hadn't heard of Gexir's arrest and punishment, and seemed surprised to learn of it.

Is that a deterrent? Maybe for the younger kids, says Mike, but for his own age group, probably not. It might even have the opposite effect. "I think people will keep doing what they do," he says.

If deterrence fails, some feel, perhaps all that creativity can be diverted into legal channels. Long before the city's crackdown, the Ann Arbor District Library began hosting a Teen Graffiti Art Exhibit, a contest held annually during the Art Fair. Says AADL director Josie Parker, "The message is ... there is an appropriate place and an appropriate way to exhibit graffiti--and it's not on the sides of buildings or on people's houses."

The message apparently missed its mark with one dexterous youth. Gexir himself was the exhibit's 2010 third-prize winner. This past summer, even as the Felch incident was wending its way through the courts, Gexir entered again--and took first place.

Such isolated cases notwithstanding, Parker says, AADL steers its contestants clear of criminal behavior. "It's done casually," she says. "It's not preachy. But we make sure they understand we're not encouraging them to put paint on anything other than a canvas."    (end of article)

[Originally published in December, 2012.]


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