Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Ironies of Pittsburgh

The last few months have brought some harsh crackdowns on Pittsburgh graffiti artists. Just before Christmas, two young men, "Sine One" and "Toaster," students at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, were arrested, and are now facing felony charges. In July, Danny Montano, known as "MFONE," pleaded guilty to 79 counts of criminal vandalism. Montano faced a maximum possible sentence of $300,000 in fines and 130 years in prison. In the end, the judge sentenced him to one of the harshest sentences for graffiti ever in the United States - 2.5 to 5 years in prison and $200,000 in restitution. Interestingly enough, the 22 year-old was arrested at the Mattress Factory, a world-renowned contemporary art museum in Pittsburgh, as he was installing his piece for an exhibition.

Commenters on the blog Just Seeds note that Pittsburgh's hard hit social service budgets and vanishing school art programs have led to a dramatic increase in graffiti in the city. In addition, Pittsburgh's ever-declining tax base means that the police-run graffiti task force simply has not been able to keep up with the ever spreading street art. That fact, plus the plethora of empty buildings, closed down mills and factories, railroad bridges, stairways, alleys and train tunnels have allowed for a flourishing graffiti scene.

The tragedy is that while a whole range of circumstances have led Pittsburgh kids to adopt street art as a means toward empowerment and self-expression, the beleaguered police force has pushed for ever harsher penalties for graffiti, with the horrible result of teenagers being faced with the prospect of spending a good chunk of their adolescence in prison.

The same drama is playing out in cities across the country, and it remains to be seen how these never ending tensions between street art and gallery art, the use of public and private space, and the consequences from a nebulous concept of "property damage" will play out.

The bitchin' photo above was taken outside the Heinz factory by Niemster and harvested from the Pittsburgh Graffiti photo pool.

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