Artists and community groups clash over graffiti downtown

Donald Olund covers up graffiti on a dumpster in downtown Phoenix. (Nicholas Serpa/DD)

By Keerthi Vedantam and Stephanie Morse

Downtown Phoenix sees its fair share of graffiti, as any city does. But, from those who clean it up to those who see it as art despite its illegality, it means different things to different people.

Community groups take action

Murals and other wall-art have become a downtown fixture in recent years and support for the artistic community from city hall has been forthcoming. Anti-graffiti organizations in Phoenix view graffiti, which is a starting point for some muralists, as a gateway crime and harmful to the community.

“After a while graffiti becomes addictive, unfortunately,” Ginnie Ann Sumner, chair of the Citizen’s Law Enforcement Anti-Graffiti Initiative (CLEA-GI), said. “It’s a gateway crime. They get involved in it and then all of a sudden they need their spray paint. They need the markers. So, that tends to lead to stealing. And once they start stealing there are other crimes that are involved.”

CLEA-GI started in August 2013 to prevent graffiti and find solutions to end the problem. Sumner said the organization is currently focusing on creating a diversion program to help people break the habit of graffiti and reaching out to other jurisdictions to expand the program.

“We’re not just about punishment,” Sumner said, “We’re about trying to find solutions. We’re trying to find solutions for the vandals whether they’re juveniles or adults.”

CLEA-GI also recently partnered with the Phoenix Community Alliance’s Silent Witness graffiti hotline. The hotline started in 1995 and awards citizens anywhere from $50 to $500 for reporting graffiti tips. After a tip is reported a police officer is dispatched to the scene to make an arrest or categorize the graffiti for future use.

Committee chair of PCA’s graffiti hotline program Kurt Schneider said they evaluated nine cases and awarded about $1,800 dollars in February. Schneider said in total the program has awarded over $200,000 and made 2,239 arrests. He also said the program has succeeded in making people more aware of graffiti and its harmful effects.

“I think people are becoming aware that if you have graffiti in your neighborhood, it reduces the desirability of your neighborhood and your community and it costs you money,” Schneider said. “People are slowly waking up to the fact that it’s not a bunch of kids running around making a mess.”

For Sumner and Schneider, there is a clear line between what is considered art and what is graffiti.

“If you have permission then it’s not vandalism,” Sumner said. “That’s the separation. If you don’t have permission then it’s vandalism. But if you have permission there are some people who really enjoy the murals on the sides of their offices or buildings. That’s not graffiti. That’s art.”

Downtown’s de-tagger

The downtown is his backyard, his office and his home, and every day for 24 years, he’s quietly cleaned it up.

Strolling through downtown Phoenix on his mobile office –– a bike with a basket full of paint, cleaners and dust masks –– Don Olund, 61, points to graffiti tags on dumpsters, newspaper stands and street lights. After about 24 years, even a small tag inscribed on the corner street sign doesn’t escape his gaze. Since starting out, he’s removed around 30,000 tags from downtown Phoenix.

He sports a grey ‘DTPHX’ button-down, sunglasses and shorts with a key ring so full it clangs against his bike with every step. It’s 93 degrees outside, but he insists on riding a bicycle over driving an air-conditioned vehicle.

“I’m on a bike, I can maneuver around downtown and get in all the small areas where the graffiti hides,” he said.

Olund started as what is now called a downtown ambassador in 1994, where he offered information about downtown Phoenix to people who wanted his help. As a favor to the city, ambassadors back then cleaned up graffiti, and that’s when Olund began taking a closer look.

“I just went ahead on my own and got some graffiti remover, kept some rags….the rest is history,” he said.

That was 24 years ago, and the city changed. More people started moving downtown, bringing business, restaurants and art with them. In 2005, downtown Phoenix made graffiti cleanup a priority, and Olund’s collection of rags, paints and cleaner got bigger.

“Graffiti is a big deal for people, they don’t like to see that,” Olund said. “But then there’s also artistic graffiti.”

Olund differentiates graffiti from murals, which he says are important to the downtown community.

“We got a lot of great artists and muralists in Phoenix,” he said. “That’s great because nowadays we’re looking to cover up blank walls. I can look at it and say I’m not gonna touch that.”

But his next project isn’t artistic. Olund approaches a blue dumpster and flips the lid, revealing a tag. The large white script is equal parts loud and uncommunicative.

“I honestly couldn’t tell you what this says,” he shrugs.

He takes two pictures of the tag, one for himself and one for the city. On his personal phone are 50 or so tags he “collected” this week alone. Olund then covers his face with a dust mask and pulls out blue spray paint. In less than two minutes, the dumpster has a fresh coat of paint beading in the sunlight, and the tag is buried underneath.

“My goal is to make it look like it was never there,” Olund says as he takes a picture of his finished work.

Olund found this tag while biking across the street. Downtown ambassadors can also call in the location of a tag where they’re working, but the large amount of graffiti in downtown Phoenix means plenty go neglected, and Olund also gets help from other graffiti organizations like Graffiti Busters.

“I think I kind of won the battle but I haven’t won the war on graffiti,” Olund said. “People like to write on stuff. It’s just the way it is.”

An artful crime

For Noe “Such Styles” Baez and his son, Champ, graffiti is not a crime, but a family business. The pair works as a father-son duo creating wall pieces and art for galleries. Noe began his artwork illegally with the police on his heels, but decades later all his work is commissioned.

Noe Baez started doing graffiti as a teenager in 1983 and has pursued it ever since. He said at the time he was inspired by the book “Getting Up” by Craig Castleman.

“I’m reading about my peers and how they’re risking so much for their art and the passion and I was into art already so I just kind of moved in that same direction,” Noe Baez said. “I grabbed a derelict can of paint and went down the alley and attempted to do something and lo and behold I could do it.”

Noe’s son Champ says doing graffiti was his birthright. He drew inspiration from going to yards with his dad and other graffiti artists as he grew up. While in high school he and his father went to an empty yard and created their first duo piece and their working relationship was born.

“The day he did that I saw him take the spray can and transfer his drawing to the wall and he did it with, to me, so much precision, because I’ve been in this so long and I see a gift in him,” Noe Baez said. “As a father it’s like him hitting a homerun or making that touchdown for me.”

Noe and Champ said they considered all types of graffiti art, even tagging. They support their fellow graffiti artists and said it is all part of the larger graffiti movement.

“When you’re talking about wall scrawling and tagging, you know, the tagging back in ‘83 that was the initial to your masterpiece. They way I see it, it has its place in the embryonal sense of what you see here today,” Noe Baez said, gesturing to his and his son’s artwork in the gallery.

Champ also said everyone has to start somewhere and for graffiti artists that sometimes means vandalizing and breaking the law.

“My dad had to start somewhere,” Champ Baez said. “Granted he had to do his thing and sometimes he had to get chased. It comes with the territory. Everything comes from something.”

The pair, however, also acknowledged that graffiti wasn’t for everyone. Champ said he thought people resisted graffiti because it comes from the streets and the rebels, an untraditional art source.

“At the time the critic said it (the graffiti) looked like someone drank paint and vomited on a canvas and we look at it, you know, and it’s fine art,” Champ Baez said. “I think it’s the fact that this art form comes from the streets and everyone expects it to come from the high tops.”

Noe and Champ do not view graffiti as harmful to the community and said that even though it is illegal, cities have bigger problems to worry about.

“Graffiti itself, it’s a quality of life offense,” Noe Baez said. “I think you get a felony now which I think is extreme, because thinking in increments of measure it’s hundredth of a thirty secondth inch of a layer of material, globules of color and water.”

Noe Baez said graffiti can even be beneficial to an area by bringing color and life back to unsightly areas. He described the positive effects of a mural he and Champ did in Guadalupe, Arizona.

“After the mural was done, after the piece was done then the town came in, it was kind of neat,” Noe Baez said. “They started planting grass. They started putting in benches. And that was all done with aerosol paint. It’s created like a cleanliness and a quality of life with the people. It’s about their community. It’s a reflection of them.”

Contact the reporters at kvedanta@asu.edu and Stephanie.M.Morse@asu.edu.