Preserving Street Art in Washington, DC

21 July, 2017

Washington, D.C. has a complex relationship with graffiti and street art.

Local street artist Gobi knows this well. Not long ago, a police officer caught him spraying colorful paint on the side of a building. Gobi did not get permission to put his design on the building. What he was doing, then, was illegal.

The police officer arrested Gobi.

Then, he asked Gobi for his business card. The officer said he was interested in hiring him for a street art project in the future.

America's capital city is trying hard to control its illegal graffiti problem. At the same time, city officials recognize the value and importance of street art.

A tribute portrait titled
A tribute portrait titled "DABS, 2016," a tribute portrait by Maria Miller honoring Berkeley "Dabs" Wright.

There is a high demand for more artists to make street art legally. But the city offers few chances for young D.C. street artists to develop their skills without breaking the law.

Some local programs, however, are trying to change that.

A long history

Graffiti and street art are forms of art created on walls or public surfaces. This art is often considered illegal because it is done without the permission of the building owners.

These art forms have existed since the times of ancient Greece. But the more modern style began forming in the 1960s in the cities of New York and Philadelphia.

"Graffiti" often appears as words -- usually the names of the artist or their art crew. Graffiti artists write the words in creative ways and with colorful spray-paint.

"Street art" is more based on images. Artists try to communicate a message through these images. Large pieces of street art are also called murals.

Graffiti and street art can be controversial. They are sometimes used to mark gang territory or damage someone's property.

Washington has tried to increase its fines for illegal graffiti. Yet it is also encouraging the creation of public art and murals.

Bridging the public and the artists

Cory Stowers is a D.C.-based graffiti and street artist. He is president of the D.C. graffiti crew Double Down Kings, or 2DK. He is also the art director for Art Bloc D.C., a local street art organization.

With Art Bloc D.C., Stowers is trying to create a bridge between the street art community and the D.C. public. He helps get permission from building owners to organize large mural projects around the city.

The projects give local street artists the chance to create their art in public, without fear of breaking the law. They also give younger artists a chance to develop their skills.

These projects are important, Stowers says. D.C. is making it more and more difficult for graffiti street artists to get practice. Construction projects and increased security have taken away important practice spaces throughout the city.

Practice is extremely important, Stower explains. Many artists who paint popular murals in communities today got their start by painting graffiti.

"There's always this conversation that you have to have with folks and explaining to them that that young person that wrote a signature on their wall 10 years ago may be the same person that they're asking to come paint a mural... Without one you don't get the other."

Street artists with Art Bloc D.C. ask community members for their opinions on the murals. They want to create pieces that are meaningful for local residents. Stowers says interacting with the local community helps to "humanize" graffiti and street artists.

"I think as communities start to recognize the value of public murals and they start to understand who actually can paint them, the idea of cultivating graffiti artists will become a little bit more popular."

Beautifying the city with murals

In 2007, the city government created the program MuralsDC. The program hires artists to paint legal murals around the city.

Nancee Lyons is MuralsDC's art director. She says the program has two goals. One is to try to prevent illegal graffiti. The other is to "beautify" the city. Program officials believe that, if murals already cover city walls, graffiti artists will not paint over them illegally.

Aniekan Udofia is a D.C.-based artist. He often paints for MuralsDC, and is known for his large works of art around the city.

He says the logic of the program is correct. Unofficial rules in the street artist and graffiti community say that the more complex the work of art, the more priority it has on a wall. Large murals, then, often take priority over simpler graffiti art. They are usually not vandalized or damaged.

"... Going over a well-done beautiful mural -- it goes outside of graffiti and at that point it's just that you hate either the artist or you hate the work that has been created."

Udofia and his art director, Mia Duvall, agree that communicating with the local residents is very important.

"I think anything you do in a public space you have to consider the community. We have to consider who is seeing this, how it's going to affect them and what's important to them... So every piece we do, we really do our best to make sure that we are being sensitive and thoughtful about who has to see this every day and how they are going to embrace this"

Udofia recently finished a major MuralsDC project. It covers one of the walls of Ben's Chili Bowl, a historic D.C. restaurant. The bright and colorful mural features 16 well-known African Americans, including Barack and Michelle Obama, Harriet Tubman, Muhammed Ali, and Dave Chappelle.

The work was introduced to the public in a ceremony on June 21.

Actor and comedian Dave Chappelle attended the ceremony. He told VOA that public art is an important part of a city's culture.

"Public art gets right to the heart of a culture of a city... who they love, who they represent, what's the neighborhood about..."

I'm Phil Dierking

Phil Dierking wrote this story for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.

Do you think street art is good or bad for a city? We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

controversial – adj. relating to or causing much discussion, disagreement, or argument

conversation – n. an informal talk involving two people or a small group of people

cultivate – v. to grow and care for

embrace – v. to accept (something or someone) readily or gladly

feature – v. to have or include (someone or something) as an important part

gang – n. a group of criminals

graffiti – n. pictures or words painted or drawn on a wall, building, etc.

hierarchy – n. a system in which people or things are placed in a series of levels with different importance or status

hire – v. to give work or a job to (someone) in exchange for wages or a salary

interact - v. to talk or do things with other people

mural – n. a usually large painting that is done directly on the surface of a wall

priority – n. something that is more important than other things and that needs to be done or dealt with first

sensitive – adj. aware of and understanding the feelings of other people

vandalize – v. to deliberately destroy or damage (property)