The Lasting Value of a Conscientious Tag

Vancouver: Shot Feb. 13, 2012Vancouver: Shot Feb. 13, 2012
I come today to praise the guerilla nutritionists.

Two blocks from my house, in a staid and wealthy section of Vancouver, there stands a Safeway with a brick wall between its parking lot and the residential block behind it. About a week ago, at its corner, by a cut-through, a utility truck appeared. Whether it was fiddling with the power or faddling with the water, I haven’t a clue. It was big and loud. The next time I walked past that corner there were two stencils on the brick: “Eat Yo” and “Carrots.” I imagined a scenario in which working men in hard hats and thunderclop boots posed as gas servicers and as a cover for Kryloning public walls in nothing-stirring neighborhoods. More likely, some lone-wolf carrot lover took it upon him(playing the odds here)self to spray a DIY root vegetable advert at the grocery’s northwest flank. By the shallowest of definitions, and maybe a few less so, it constitutes vandalism. Yet it’s also absurdist, harmless and, in its casual marmishness, perhaps even benevolent — graffiti as public service.

It would be easy to argue that virtually any form of tagging undertaken with a sense of aesthetic could qualify as art. Most of the wrist-garble that people tend to slap onto buildings, sidewalks, bus stops, bathroom tile, bike racks, lamp posts, subway posters, staircases, parking blocks, road signs, overpasses, fallen timber, construction debris and anything else that will hold a Sharpie stroke doesn’t rise to the level of art, even if, in a certain subversive sense, it recalls the tenacity of dandelions growing out of frost fissures in a sidewalk. A city can be a hard place to live, and quells expression. The building has been done already. Your ingenuity, while cute, is really just an affectation, and when you’re done Instagramming your latest restaurant meal, you can just Vancouver: Shot Feb. 13, 2012Vancouver: Shot Feb. 13, 2012go plug yourself back into the egg-carton cubicle hive where your expanding ass has been wedged. Art doesn’t have anything at all to say unless someone doesn’t want to hear it. By actively defacing private or public property, and risking personal harm in the doing, the artist rattles the viewer by reminding him or her that this environment is a construct. It was made. As it could be done, it can thus be undone.

This isn’t necessarily anarchic; at its best, that aim cuts across the ruts that we all lull ourselves into. In that, art gives. Yet even the best of it risks and in fact nearly demands removal. If left indefinitely to linger, to provoke, then what message does that send to the vandal? To the world at large? Enough notoriety, and the vandal is hailed, celebrated, protected. The vandal becomes a Banksy. With that, order is forfeited.

A bit of self-defense is then in order. Aesthetics are a great place to start, for even the most gruel-blooded bureaucrat can be inspired to overlook a piece of obvious beauty. As in life at large, the best-looking among us survive longest. Art, too, propagates its genes. For the past year, at least, this piece has graced a low wall outside the student center at the University of British Columbia, innocuously fading with constant strobe of rain and sunshine, left for the moss to determine its lifespan. I believe the artist (“xo,” it’s signed) chose this canvas to reward the keen lookers among the studentry and to make itself a small target. It’s also a tiny aesthetic triumph. In all, it is impossible to scorn.

“Eat Yo / Carrots” is also attractive, I think, but it’s also at eye-level on strongly contrasting brickwork on private property. Its death warrant was signed when the paint still stank. Unless … well, unless someone decides that to erase “Eat Yo / Carrots” would be to denounce carrot-eating generally. Why, who wants to be seen as anti-vegetable? What example does that set? The conscientious vandal perhaps is no vandal at all. When we read “Eat Yo / Carrots” the lasting impression in our mind is probably beneficial, at some level. It’s not “Eat Yo / Mama” or even “Eat Yo / Twix.” It’s a message that Michelle Obama would endorse, if perhaps not a medium.

Look around and this stuff is actually somewhat common in Vancouver, where social disruption comes with a teaspoon of irony and a pinch of Canadian / West Coast bonhomie. Not a mile down University Boulevard from “Eat Yo / Carrots,” at the end of a gentle but lengthy hill on the westbound side of the road is a series of stencils in the bike path that say A Hill / With A Bike On It / Stands / A Little / Taller. The last one, seen here, appears just as the dogged rider can see the crest. There’s no other rise of any consequence on the way to the university. At this point, you can shift to your highest gear and simply cruise, which is congratulations enough. But the street tags (which I only assume are unsanctioned) provide a bit of breeze at your back. Anyone who would be in a position to see them would appreciate them. In claiming an unmarked stretch of road and turning it into a canvas for the forces of good, some vandal managed to turn public space into public art. And if you know it’s there, you look forward to it, a carrot to get you through your commute.

UBC: shot Feb. 13, 2012UBC: shot Feb. 13, 2012