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Who should pay for graffiti?

Among many other things, graffiti is a public system of conflict prevention. A system that not only works almost imperceptibly and constantly, but also relies on a fundamental premise: everyone can (and should) think differently. A curiously similar service provides some traffic signals that indicate to drivers and passers-by (as is the case of "stops") of the imminent presence of the other; thus avoiding a crash or other type of accident. In the same way, graffiti and its close relatives (urban art, posters, etc), to a greater or lesser extent, serve a greater purpose for the society they inhabit: to warn and confirm that there are others other than us -a matter that is easily forgotten. This service or utility is of notable transcendence in knowing that many of the conflicts or “dangerous agreements” (such as indifference) arise from the original inability to conceive, accept and respect that the other exists in his or her individuality of thought and in his or her autonomy of action.

This approach to graffiti as a service of collective utility represents a further and additional challenge: to define who should pay for graffiti when there is an interest in participating in public conversations directly. (A new practical and theoretical category). For now, and without much replication, the cost of creating and executing the vast majority of this type of graffiti is borne by the person who executes it (artists on the eve of the event or spontaneous practitioners). This reality implies an evident injustice if it is assumed that such activity -as I expressed it- is of significant importance for the welfare of society and that the artist or practitioner is the agent of least economic capacity or, at least, of least profit in providing the service. A common misconception is that graffiti is "free" because it is on the street. Of course it is not. There is someone who is paying for it, and I reiterate that it is worth asking if that situation is the most appropriate and fair. The poetry and courage behind the so-called "self-management" does not rule out the existence of a flaw in the "system of remuneration for service".

Currently, apart from the graffiti that is "self-managed", there are two possible economic sources for painting in the street for the aforementioned purpose (of participating in public conversations directly): the public sector and the private sector. And although I have been working on projects of this nature for more than 10 years, with both (which I appreciate), over time I have been able to recognize two risks of financing this particular type of graffiti by these two agents.

The first risk, which I consider potential, is the co-optation of the graffiti discourse by the public sector. And although this has not happened in the projects that I have participated in and which have had several administrations as their main allies, it is very likely that some skillful official or unscrupulous politician will understand the importance of graffiti in street communication and will appropriate it by setting a thematic agenda for the artists; or what is even worse, that it will suggest an ideological bias; supported -and justified- by the fact that the origin of the resources is public and he as the author of the expenditure has that power. This potential risk does not in any way detract from the importance of successful systems for promoting graffiti in Bogotá and other cities, but it does lead to caution in relegating the obligation to pay for graffiti almost exclusively to the public sector.

On the other hand, while the involvement of the private sector in the development of many graffiti projects and artists' careers has also been important, there is a real and tangible risk in their involvement. Sadly, several companies and brands disregard the regulations and principles of outdoor visual advertising by disguising their urban art campaigns. In other words, painting billboards in public space turning graffiti into something it is not. Affecting its essence. (The wolf disguised as art). Again, it would be hypocritical of me to ignore the relevance of the economic contributions of the private sector in the development of graffiti in Colombia and the world, but I am concerned about witnessing how many times artists are hired to create murals (some huge and very well placed) with the sole purpose of avoiding the taxes caused by placing advertising in public space (a form of pollution allowed but seriously regulated and with a clear tax burden). It is obvious that advertising and art have an antagonistic and unbalanced relationship: the former seeks to alienate the will of its public, the latter to free it. It goes without saying that on many occasions the private sector acts in a way that respects rules and graffiti, but this does not mean, as in the case of the public sector, that the risk ceases to exist.

It seems that the current models of financing (self-management, public resources or private financing) are far from sufficient to fully comply with the "provision of service" of this characteristic type of graffiti; which forces us to imagine that there must be other possibilities and formulas of economic remuneration for the artist. Solutions that, in the first place, are not unfair and onerous for the less privileged link in the chain (the artist or practitioner), or, in the second place, do not represent risks of ideological cooptation or manipulation of the purpose of graffiti and the rules of public space. Fortunately, systems of economic transaction that directly connect artists to their audiences are on the rise, overcoming the debate on the institutional intermediation of these "rewards". I am referring to crypto-economics. An invention that conforms by principle and purpose to graffiti by taking advantage of available technology (augmented reality). For now I will stop to delve into this subject in a future reflection.


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