In Wenatchee, where I grew up, graffiti is pretty much synonymous with gang activity. In fact, the same could be said for most cities I've been in.
It wasn't until this year, when I first came to Bellingham, that I was introduced to what I'm going to call “granola graffiti.” You know—graffiti that still covers a public area, still costs time and money to clean or cover up and is still illegal, but instead of being gang symbols says something like, “Make Love, Not War.”
While this kind of message is admittedly less offensive than that of conventional graffiti, it begs the question: should all graffiti be regarded the same?
And when it comes to Western in particular, where graffiti cases are at an all-time high, what's the solution? Should graffiti in all forms be intolerable, or should there be a designated place where it's welcome—even celebrated—as an art form?
First of all, as I said earlier, graffiti comes with certain negative connotations. If you're walking down a street with a ton of graffiti, even if you don't directly acknowledge that it's there, you're going to feel differently about that area than if it was in its original form. There are few places this matters more than a university like Western. One of the biggest things that draws people to Western is how beautiful and natural the campus looks. If potential students and their parents come to visit and see a bunch of graffiti amidst the historic buildings and forest trees, this image is shot. It won't matter to them whether the graffiti says the name of a gang or “Vegan or Die”—it destroys the natural, vandalism-free image of Western that most people want to maintain, and it might be the deciding factor in students deciding to go elsewhere.
Having said this, I do believe graffiti can be a valid form of expression. While I have no tolerance whatsoever for people who defile public property, graffiti can be striking and beautiful in the proper settings, like in an art exhibit or a wall clearly designated as a graffiti art area. There's no doubt about it—graffiti has power. It's bright, it's semi-permanant and it has a message. Being able to create graffiti art must be a great feeling for people who have that gift, and it makes sense that they would want to utilize it.
Obviously, graffiti isn't going to stop. People who feel the need to spray paint something—anything—are going to do it. But it would definitely help if they were provided a distinct place at Western where graffiti was accepted and welcomed, like a giant canvas for a mural. Maybe an art student or club could facilitate this.
Graffiti's going to happen at Western no matter what. But if we create a space where it's treated as an art form, we'd be harnessing the power of graffiti and turning it into a beautiful thing at Western. And in the process, we'd be taking some of that power away from people with bad intentions.