Line drawn between graffitti, murals
In 2010, then Prime Minister the Hon Bruce Golding was incensed at the appearance of graffiti defacing premises in Denham Town and Tivoli Gardens in west Kingston. The affront triggered a chain reaction, which eventually led to members of the Jamaica Constabulary Force painting over murals in inner-city communities.
In the opinion of Honor Ford-Smith, associate professor of community and environmental art in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, Canada, the destruction of the murals was an act of violent censorship, a violation of the right to freedom of expression and a denial of the right to self-representation. In a column for The Sunday Gleaner on November 10, 2013, Ford-Smith said, "the mural movement in Jamaica is part of the global street-art movement. The murals are not the same as graffiti."
Contemporarily, graffiti has become so accepted that it features as the primary attraction for various towns and districts across the world. In the same year Prime Minister Golding raised his grouses, a favela in Rio de Janiero, Brazil, was transformed into a colourful hillside canvas, attracting tourist activity from all over the world. Similarly, The Wynwood Arts District of Miami, Florida, has become a focal point for millennial entertainment, backdropped by graffiti, murals and sculptures.
Yannick Reid, visual communicator and creative director for reggae revival star Protoje, outlined the negative connotations associated with graffiti, versus the installation of murals. "In more recent times, including Jamaica, I think what we have probably come to see as graffiti is more lower technically skilled art that exists on the streets - more in a vandalism capacity, whereas a higher form of street art is muralism. They do come from the same family, but muralism takes a more deliberate and skilled approach and is usually commissioned to be done with permission," Reid told The Sunday Gleaner.
FORM OF COMMENTARY
"Definitions do get confusing when speaking colloquially, where graffiti is art in a public space that is normally done illicitly. Traditionally, graffiti has been seen as illicit art, or art that is seen as vandalism. There still remains the fact that art will be art if it's made with or without permission. Even though graffiti is still illicit art, it still functions as a form of social commentary that will always exist, whether we approve it or not, and is still an important tool for understanding and textualising the community that we live in," Reid continued.
The creative director revealed that it is difficult, even as an artist himself, to declare that graffiti as a vandal's expression should be encouraged. However, other developing art spaces have been built around 'vandalism', or walls blanketed by murals.
'Permitted' street art is one way other communities have attracted industry attention and perhaps promoted economic development. Real estate developer Tony Goldman was instrumental in the refurbishment of Wynwood. He created a Mecca for art aficionados centred around already existing graffiti. Now Wynwood Arts District sports record stores, bars, restaurants and galleries and is considered a street art phenomenon.
Visual artist Matthew McCarthy told The Sunday Gleaner, "When many think about graffiti, they think about American bubble-lettering style. Graffiti art can come in many forms, but how it manifests is up to us, and the support will come from allowing more public spaces to be open for public art.
"Graffiti and street art is definitely art, from the perspective of being both intended for public viewing and interpretation and being and expression. I think Jamaica has also had a long history with mural art," he continued.
McCarthy's experience as a muralist has taken him to lead residency programmes in the UK. He has also been invited to Norway, where he also did a live mural, and had his work displayed along with other locally bred artists Leasho Johnson, Ebony Patterson and Cosmo White.
McCarthy's conclusion on the argument of permitted art versus vandalism is, "I think we are best to support the arts in general more, because those things will come and we will have a community that will make something that is unique to our country."
"I want it to be carefully known that street art, which is muralism, should be greatly encouraged, as it is a method to incorporate art into public spaces, and art as social commentary and art as healing. It's very important and the presence and appreciation of art in a country says a lot about the minds and culture of a people," Reid said.