One of my favourite places to visit for a day trip out of London is Brighton. Brighton is a small city by the seaside in the south of England with an ‘alternative’ reputation. One of the reasons I like it so much is the fantastic display of graffiti and street art on offer. Brighton is a place that acknowledges the role street art plays in forming it’s urban identity and, rather than removing all graffiti as ‘vandalism’, embraces this. On my last visit one of the first things I noticed as I left the train station was a painted traffic junction box. It wasn’t just a group of tags like I may have come to expect around city railway lines, but a piece of artwork covering the entire box. Clearly this work was authorized, and as I ventured through the city during the day I saw more and more of these junction box artworks. I thought they were great, and had read about these types of council initiatives, but had never observed them all over an area like this before. Of course, I wanted to know more. I found out the signal boxes in Brighton began with local street artist, Cassette Lord. On his website Cassette Lord says the idea to stencil the junction boxes came about when a youth group finished a mural they noted the only part uncovered was the green junction box in front.
“The boxes were mainly ignored and often a bit scruffy, we agreed this would be a great way to liven them up and give people something cool to look at and add to Brighton,” (Cassette Lord).
|Painted junction boxes, Brighton – Photos by Billy Haworth|
The first time I came across the notion of painting traffic signal boxes was during the course of researching graffiti management strategies and patterns in Sydney, Australia. The example of painting traffic signal boxes came from Brisbane, QLD. The initiative Artforce, established in 1999, aims to reduce the recurrent costs of graffiti removal by inviting local artists and residents to help decorate the boxes. A report by Catherine Ovenden (2007) evaluating the efforts of this strategy over a seven year period found that the reduction of graffiti on painted compared to unpainted boxes was consistent across Brisbane, with unpainted boxes accumulating graffiti three times faster than painted traffic signal boxes (Haworth et al., 2013). On the surface then it appears the introduction of Brisbane’s “drive-through gallery” has had significant positive impacts. In terms of graffiti management, however, measures of success that focus only on reduction of graffiti have limitations, namely they fail to distinguish between different types of graffiti or to take account of the evolving dynamics of graffiti writing (See my recent paper: ‘Spatio-temporal analysis of graffiti occurrence in an inner-city urban environment‘).
Other cities around the world too have adopted this initiative. Melbourne in Australia has followed in the footsteps of Brisbane’s Artforce, introducing painted traffic signal boxes in a number in inner city suburbs in the hope that they will “reduce graffiti, provide opportunities for local artists and enhance local streets with new and vibrant art,” (City of Yarra). Tauranga City council in New Zealand claim “beautifully painted roadside artworks reduce the likelihood of them being tagged, while making a beautiful and intriguing creative feature in the urbanscape of the city,” (Tauranga City). The Painted Utility Box program in the city of Calgary, Canada, similarly aims to discourage graffiti vandalism by providing public space for original community art.
These initiatives are centred on the same core goal: to reduce graffiti ‘vandalism’. And that is where my problem with this approach lies. When exactly is graffiti ‘vandalism’ and when is it ‘art’? Who decides this? These initiatives are based on the assumption that all graffiti that might occur on these traffic signal boxes or elsewhere is ‘vandalism’ not worthy to remain on the traffic boxes, and the community pieces are ‘beautiful’ because they are ‘art’. The issue I have is that everyone has differing views on graffiti; what they like, what they don’t like, what is appropriate, what is not, what is graffiti, what is art, and so on. These initiatives ignore that graffiti is a diverse subculture. I fail to see how taking even more space away from someone wanting space to write will be an effective approach. Perhaps rather than creating spaces where people cannot write, authorities should focus more on providing spaces where they can write, thus discouraging writing in unwanted spaces.
One comfort I take from the Brighton example is that at least the program was started by a street artist already writing on the streets aiming to add to the existing urban aesthetic, and not by a councillor in an office who is unlikely to have much experience of graffiti culture beyond the view of it as crime in their community. I don’t mean to say community art projects are not welcome. Of course they are great for many different reasons, and many of the works I’ve seen on traffic boxes, particularly those by Cassette Lord, are really awesome! And I would certainly say that I prefer an approach to graffiti management that aims to exhibit local art as opposed to those many cities adopt that simply remove all graffiti as vandalism. I do question, however, the long-term success of a strategy to reduce graffiti that fails to understand the fundamentals of what graffiti culture is, and the diversity that comes with it. I suppose only time will tell.