Sometimes the lines are blurred, sometimes it’s very clear which is which. But as cities around the country try to reduce vandalism, they are enlisting artists to make sanctioned public art and create spaces that not only replace the blight, but engage the communities they are in.
Sara Daleiden runs MKE-LAX, a cultural exchange initiative between Los Angeles and Milwaukee, and she is a producer for the documentary Civic Art: Four Stories from South Los Angeles. Stacey Williams Ng is a muralist with Wallpapered City and program director for Black Cat Alley on Milwaukee’s East Side.
"I always like to define it along a spectrum," says Williams Ng, "where the one extreme spectrum of graffiti is vandalism, and on the other extreme, with public art, it might be a five million dollar marble statue commissioned by the city government for a park square."
"There are certain artists who will do their artwork uninvited," she continues, "but then the recipient of that artwork is delighted beyond belief. So was it really a crime, or was it a gift?"
The projects documented in Civic Art: Four Stories from South Los Angeles were certainly not uninvited. The movie takes a look at four different government-sanctioned projects in four locations, detailing their backstory, planning and execution. The artists came to the projects from all different angles - from painting and other visual art, to environmental perspectives and even cooking.
There was a decidedly cultural component. "We really looked about how the art projects can talk about cultural exchange in the US - so how we actually have to spend more time communicating, listening, just connecting with each other. Because it's very easy for any cultural group to stay within itself and not necessarily be curious about who else is right next to them," says Daleiden.
As with Black Cat Alley and other projects in Milwaukee, the purpose of all the projects documented in the film was to cultivate art and community in the selected LA neighborhoods. "That was what the heart of what the project was about, was doing different experiments socially as well as physically at each of the sites, as an effort towards graffiti abatement, but also as just an an effort of exploring what civic art could mean," Daleiden adds.
Civic Art: Four Stories from South Los Angeles is being presented through the Milwaukee Film Festival on Thursday Oct. 12 at 5 pm at the Times Cinema.