What we can learn from graffiti

Let’s talk about graffiti. May Karp, a Toronto photographer, went around taking pictures of legally-produced murals and other outdoor graffiti art. Then she blew up the photos very large and displayed and sold them in a gallery show, without providing context or the names of the artists. To her shock and disappointment, the graffiti artists whose work she’d photographed were furious. They banded together and had her show shut down despite her protests that she just wanted to share their unique art with the world. The artists, it seemed, didn’t want to share their talent with the world. They wanted credit and fair pay. (Full story here.)

The really fun part is that this has happened before. A New York dentist collected graffiti photos into a book called “Tattooed Walls,” which also met with outrage from the artists. He also hadn’t thought to credit the artists involved or compensate them.

This is the kind of thing that very easily happens in development work. It’s the kind of blunder made by well-meaning Westerners, especially small NGOs and social entrepreneurs. It’s easy to come in, see a “problem,” and work to solve it instead of taking enough time to listen and learn the true situation. The thing is, though, you have to provide what people actually need. If Ms. Karp or Dr. Rosenstein had made contact with the graffiti artists and asked if they wanted to be part of their projects, they would never have run into trouble, because the artists would have told them no.

If you actually want to help, make it useful and don’t assume you know what useful is. Ms. Karp and Dr. Rosenstein were either too intimidated by graffiti culture to reach out to artists, or too arrogant to even remember their existence. Neither of these are attitudes that lead to useful work.

(Side note: I suspect them of both. Dr. Rosenstein said, “I wanted to bond with them and become friends with them,” but claimed he couldn’t locate the artists. Ms. Karp said she wanted to “preserve these amazing works from the outdoor elements, from the white-wash brigades, even from other artists who paint over them. It is now possible for artists who follow the principles of good art to come in from the outside and show their work on gallery walls.” Since many graffiti artists are shown in galleries, this was breathtaking condescension.)

Finding out what people actually need is an art and a science. There’s a huge body of research devoted to it, which I won’t drag you back through. (Here are a few resources.)

It pretty much boils down to 1) asking people what they need and 2) getting real, quantitative and qualitative data about the situation. It takes some time and effort, but it’s not difficult to do, and it makes the difference between a city full of angry graffiti artists and a treasured labor of love. Once someone tried to talk to them, it became clear that the helpless marginalized artists that Karp and Rosenstein wanted to help and support were neither helpless nor marginalized.

(Art Credit: Artwork by Reyes, Photo by funkandjazz)