Friday, October 22, 2010


An Ugly Cry To Be Noticed

What a shame that graffiti vandals in their desperate pitch to be noticed have smeared their droppings across the lovely old architecture and ageless charm of Eastern Europe.
Mary and I found on a delightful odyssey through ninet countries that too many walls bear a scruffy crust of spray paint markings that make you yearn for a scrub brush...and a gun.
When they paste on the latest posters from the culture huskers and the bargain boasters, the dismal result is an ugly skin for even granite walls.

I no longer remember where I took the picture to the left because it's hardly unusual. My grim conclusion after we floated on the Danube River from Bulgaria to Germany on a Viking River cruise is that the graffiti vandals (I refuse to call them artists) would scrawl their tags across the Mona Lisa if they could elude the Louvre's security.
The so-called experts on gaffiti argue that it has always been with us. They point to many examples going back to cave days. Nonsense!
The red bull drawings in Spain were painted by flickering flame in a cave 15,000 years ago as a wish by hunters to remind their descendants of where they got their food.
The cave at Alta Mira is closed to the public now but I have been there, scrunched down, wondering. One ancient artist even incorporated the swell of the ceiling into his bull.
How can that be equated with punks defacing public and private property with their painted spoor which often is not graceful but just a scrawl.
When gangs "tag" their turf to warn other petty bullies away, it is hardly a deep desire to leave behind a painted memory of their existence.
I have been to Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary and Serbia several times over the changing decades, but this was my first visit to Bulgaria and Romania. The graffiti vandals have laid siege to the Bulgarian and Romania walls, often humble walls left behind by the poverty of the hard times under communism. But it's bad in the other countries, worse than it was in the past.
On my first visit to the two Germanys in 1966, I don't recall any graffiti. Indeed, I found on a lonely visit to the infamous Berlin Wall that there was no markings at all, just the dismal grey concrete. There was a splatter of blood left a week before by a victim stupid enough to touch the western side of the wall. (The wall was built a few feet inside East Germany precisely to prevent people from trying to demolish it or paint slogans on it.) Significantly, when the Wall was demolished finally on that one glorious night, it was covered with graffiti.
Is this the sad price we must pay for the glories of democracy?
I wonder whether graffiti now flaunts its poisonous flowers in former communist states like Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia precisely because authorities are no longer as tough on those who would despoil the property of the people.
I certainly haven't noticed much graffiti in several visits to Russia. The same with China, Turkey and Egypt, but then the policing there is tough against any form of public expression.
Was that his experience, I asked my son Mark, who lives and works in China and is a world traveller. He said: "I don't recall graffiti too much in Russia or in South Korea, and not much in China. For one thing about China, it's not too easy to find cans of spray paint. and they're likely expensive."
Mark is one of the few Westerners to have wandered recently through North Korea. He brought back some wonderful propaganda posters which he has sold on the Internet. But spray paint and marker pens don't smear the walls of the Hermit Kingdom because not only would the cans be too costly if they could be found, there aren't many suicidal enough to become graffiti vandals. Just as in East Germany on my first visit in the 1960s, anything like a poster or a slogan better be state sanctioned or jail was certain.
Mark raised a solution that was famously used in the New York transit system where the bosses set a goal that any graffiti on any car had to be painted over that night. It worked too, because the vandals found it frustratingly expensive to keep buying paint when their markings disappeared within hours. Mark argues that China with its huge work force would find it easy to paint over any graffiti each night.
I asked Mark about my theory that the graffiti of Eastern Europe is the sad result of people flaunting their freedom from police states. His view: "I think idle hands are responsible. When youth have reasonable disposable income and venues like concerts, movie theatres, cafes and safe parks, then they will be less likely to be spray painting. I think the youth in many countries have little to do other than to pick up rocks and throw them at the authorities - from Palestinians to Afghanis. Busy them with proper schools, shopping centres and quality television and they'll become pacified."
Graffiti is often grouped with broken windows when it comes to trying to curb lawlessness. The "broken window" theory of policing is that if you fix the little blotches immediately, like a broken window in a public building, you demonstrate that the community isn't going to let petty criminals get away with anything.
In Toronto, gaffiti is worse than it has ever been. There is a mail box in front of my house that is always smeared within days of it being repainted by Canada Post. Some buildings facing subways are coated from corner to corner. So Toronto is hardly a model for Eastern Europe in this area.
Too bad! If the city got serious, and obviously it isn't now, the fines for these vandals would be increased dramatically, especially for repeat offenders, and would include compulsory community service covering the graffiti. The vandals would have to do a good job or they would just have to keep on painting.
One hopeful sign is that the new Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, has said that one of the things he wants to attack in his city is graffiti. Good, because the cost of it, to both storekeepers and utilities is enormous.
I would consider it a ludicrous failure if centuries from now, an archaeologist unearthed from the ruins of ancient Toronto a slab with mysterious symbols and for decades the experts tried to decipher the language of vanished Canada. They would fail because we can't even decipher those symbols today, whether on the banks of the Humber or the Danube.

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