- Associated Press - Saturday, July 19, 2014

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) - The night before Zach Medler set out to spray-paint Lafayette, a one-story warehouse called Foam City bristled with neon hair and spiked jackets. A street punk band from Boston cranked the volume to 11, shouting throaty expletives while shirtless, tattooed mosh-pitters thrashed on the dance floor.

The place smelled of sweat and cigarettes. Old computers and couches were clustered near the walls, and graffiti - colorful, hasty scribbles, intricate, miniature drawings - was everywhere.

Nestled in the back corner of this alternative studio space/venue is a repurposed garage where Medler, a 35-year-old muralist, keeps his stencils, paste-ups, rollers, rags, plastic buckets, found wood and many, many cans of spray paint. The walls are blanketed with the blacks, reds, yellows and blues of stylized aerosol graffiti. His studio is a mess of color, creation and destruction.

Medler, who is married and wears a baseball cap and a solid tee, has more in common with the street punk than meets the eye. He’s a street artist, and he shares with the punk rocker a need to defy the city image as old, white, conservative, Christian and quintessentially Midwestern. Medler wants to “challenge the older guard” and to “bring a younger aesthetic into town.”

On a recent Thursday morning, the punk rockers were long gone, and Medler carried his spray painting tools in a plastic bin.

He doesn’t like the way things look around town. He walked up to a boarded window near the corner of Ferry and Fifth streets and frowned at the dreariness of sun-faded wood and peeling paint.

“Lafayette just looks like a typical Midwest city. It’s brick and tan. To me, tan isn’t a color. It’s an attitude,” he told the Journal & Courier (https://on.jconline.com/WfiO0Q ).

He carried the bin and a 10-foot ladder to the alleyway between Bernadette’s Barbershop and Chase Bank, where a team of landscapers had parked a pickup truck and trailer to work on the gardens facing Main Street. He got to work. He was done by noontime. Passers-by hardly noticed the clack-clack-clack of shaking paint cans, the clang of metal on concrete, and the hiss and fumes of paint jetting onto the eggshell-colored wall.

Medler left his signature - a life-size boy looking down at a cellphone. But above this cartoonish yet satirical drawing is something new - a proclamation. For Medler and for the town’s street punkers - and bikers, skateboarders, taggers, tattoo artists and house show musicians - it signifies something big. Really big. It says, “small spaces: Lafayette.”

It’s a project, as city planner and project coordinator Margy Deverall put it, to “funkify Lafayette” with publicly sanctioned graffiti. Medler will hire graffiti artists from Detroit, Indianapolis and other urban centers to tag boarded-up windows, alleys, doors and garage doors around town. Property owners will need to approve each installation, and they reserve the right to have the pieces taken down.

It’s no surprise the project already has stirred up controversy, and, as Medler and Deverall would learn later at a meeting with the Lafayette Historic Preservation Commission, it will likely never gain full public support.

On May 22, the Lafayette Redevelopment Commission approved a $20,000 contract that allowed Medler to bring “a youthful aesthetic built on contemporary street art, graffiti writing, stencils, paste-ups, installation, sculpture and similar media,” making “small spaces: Lafayette” the largest public arts grant of its kind, nearly three times the average grant since 1976.

It will span the entire summer and feature up to 15 artists and 60 spaces. A similar, smaller-scale project in West Lafayette, “tiny places,” which involves another artist, is also in the works.

Medler has worked to liven up the city’s streets before; he’s installed public art all over Greater Lafayette. He almost reflexively looks at the side of a building and sees a canvas.

But this is less a public art project than an effort to bridge the gap between what Lafayette is and what Medler envisions the city could become.

City officials and analysts have long stressed the need to draw young blood to town and to loosen regulations in an effort to promote an edgier culture. In 2012, an independent analysis commissioned by the city found that Lafayette, compared with similar communities, such as Asheville, North Carolina, and Bloomington, ranked well below average - seventh out of eight - in the “after hours” and “vitality” categories.

Broadly speaking, the city is good for retirees and parents of school-age children, but not so much for the young and bright. Lafayette’s bland image is partly to blame for its ongoing exodus of talent.

“Many creative, talented people move to Greater Lafayette for a short time, but leave because they don’t ‘fit’ a white, Midwest, Christian image,” concluded the 2012 “From Good to Great: Making Lafayette a Community of Choice” report, which outlined an action plan to make Lafayette more hip.

“Greater Lafayette is a good community. Clean. Polite. Well-intentioned. Like a child scrubbed clean and poured into a starched shirt for Sunday services,” the report said. “But to become a place where ALL people feel comfortable and welcomed, the region needs to find - and develop - its funkiness. . It needs to stop playing it so safe, and let a few Freak Flags fly.”

Lafayette and West Lafayette have ramped up public arts efforts in recent years.

In 2010, a West Lafayette strategic planning process concluded that an “Art in Public Places” site map and public art strategy should be implemented. A report the following year detailed the benefits of public art, which included urban design, quality of life, economic advantage, cultural tourism, civic engagement, increased understanding and appreciation for art and graffiti control.

Meanwhile, in the past two years, Lafayette has granted nearly $90,000 in public arts grants - including the most recent Medler grant - compared with a total of $195,400 in the past 40 years, according to city records.

Now Lafayette seems to bustle with public art. Interactive maps on official Lafayette, West Lafayette and the Tippecanoe Arts Federation websites take visitors on a virtual tour through modern sculptures and murals painted on building walls and alleys.

But public art, in many ways, couldn’t be more different than street art.

Public art is commissioned and approved by cities and towns; street art arises spontaneously and illegally. Street artists work at night and are known mostly by pseudonyms, which they frequently use to sign their works with highly stylized, spray-painted letters. It’s anonymous, ephemeral and, most importantly, uninvited. Street art is the weed to public art’s manicured rose bush.

The street art scene in Lafayette is virtually nonexistent, Medler said. Graffiti is frequently limited to gang signs, black scrawls of profanity or threats to police.

And the street art that does pop up - paper paste-ups on the sides of buildings on Main Street, small and subtle illustrations on electrical boxes - is taken down swiftly. Meanwhile, scrawls on bathroom walls in bars, such as the Black Sparrow and the Spot Tavern, are dazzlingly urban. Tiny scribbles on sidewalks and near dumpsters seem to cry out for an alternative form of public expression.

But scribbles are still scribbles. They don’t capture the public consciousness the same way a “Surfing Madonna” - the controversial yet highly prized underpass mural in Encinitas, California - can. Medler wants to cover the city with many small pieces, hoping that, since they’re all under the umbrella of one project, they’re able to make a big collective statement.

Lafayette’s best examples of street art are sanctioned pieces. A three-wall mural of bright graffiti writing and drawings in the Lafayette location of Bar Barry Liquors may be the most vibrant example.

Murals by Medler and others under the Tippecanoe Arts Federation’s downtown mural project also have an urban edge. The 2013 mural “dis(Connect),” a piece of social commentary by Medler that spans an entire 100-foot wall at Third and Romig street, has drawn complaints. Medler’s 2012 piece “Robots,” under the U.S. 52 West bridge on North River Road, has been criticized as well. But they still retain an innocuous, for-the-public visual language that Medler would like to eschew with “small spaces: Lafayette.”

“I didn’t want to work with kids this time. I wanted to work with professionals from big cities,” Medler said. …

Medler believes street art can energize Lafayette’s downtown in a way public art never can.

“I couldn’t stand another modern-type bronze sculpture,” he said. “They don’t say anything at all. It’s just this shape, this corporate thing.”

Medler has always been tempted to take the spray can into his own hands and mark up the city. He knows most of Lafayette’s vandals and street artists and can tell you the best way to tag up a wall.

“You go between 3 and 4:30 in the morning,” he said. “It’s after the cops hit the bars and before they start delivering the newspapers.”

But Medler doesn’t want to merely rebel. He wants to make the community better and to work with the city.

“Some people feel that if you don’t do things illegally, it’s not legit,” he said. “But I’m not from New York. I’m not a vandal. If I can work with my community a little bit, if I can make it functional for everybody, it’s better.”

Just a few weeks before Medler began painting up the city, Mike Koning was driving down the alleyways of Lafayette’s north side. He craned his neck from a police-issued cruiser as he passed through hot spots for gang tags.

After a few rounds, he finally spotted a garage door marked with the letters “RR” - too faint to justify cleaning up. There wasn’t much to see today.

“If you look around, you’re going to see how clean our city is,” said Koning, Lafayette and West Lafayette’s 74-year-old graffiti abatement coordinator. “The graffiti has pretty much slacked off.”

That’s because the city cracked down, hard, on graffiti - and continues to do so.

In 2007, the city passed an ordinance that requires property owners to clean graffiti within 15 days of city notification or face a fine of $50.

Mayor Tony Roswarski, realizing that the rule could be unfair for unwitting property owners, instituted the city’s first official graffiti abatement program. Since then, nearly all graffiti has been covered up by a single man.

Lafayette’s “graffiti guy,” also known as “the buff man,” may well be the city’s most prolific painter. You can find his mark on more walls and garage doors than that of any local artist - even Medler.

“In the seven years that I’ve been working the graffiti program, we never had anyone fined for not cleaning up a tag,” said Koning, who estimates spending more than 1,200 hours covering up more than 1,300 tags.

In 2007, the Lafayette Police Department reported 258 incidents of graffiti. Rates have dropped steadily since then. Last year, that number was just 119. January was the first month since the program started in which there were no graffiti cases, though that could be a result of the unusually long winter, Koning said. …

Koning acknowledged he’s covered up what many would consider art.

In 2007, the Twyckenham Bridge underpass, off South Ninth Street, was one of the most heavily tagged places in Greater Lafayette. One of the graffiti pieces was a vibrant illustration of a toad sitting under a toadstool, with what appeared to be the stylized words “Guru” and “Spliffster.”

“It was a piece of artwork. I was a little hesitant to paint over it,” Koning said. “I called the street commissioner, and he said it was because they painted on city property, so it became vandalism. That’s how we got permission to paint over it.”

Kristen Rupp, co-owner of Bernadette’s Barbershop, is angry at Koning’s work - really angry. She pointed to a block of yellow paint covering what may have been scrawls on the side of the barbershop’s white wall, where “small spaces: Lafayette” makes its home base.

“That looks really terrible when they cover it up like that,” she said.

A coat of latex paint covering the barbershop’s Main Street facade makes Rupp fume. The color’s slightly off. She can still see what’s underneath - square stickers with nonoffensive block letters and illustrations. The paint is thin enough to scratch off with her nail.

“That, to me, is more alarming than someone putting stickers and stuff like that,” Rupp said. “This is terrible. I feel like that’s graffiti.”

Rick Schwarz, president of the Historic Preservation Commission, said “it’s a step back to allow graffiti” and worries about its effects.

“It could open up a big can of worms,” he said.

Commission member Steve Meyer said “small spaces: Lafayette” seems to conflict with the mission of preservation.

“I’m having trouble conceptualizing how this fits into the historic nature of what we’re trying to preserve downtown,” Meyer said. “We’re allowing this modern abstract art stuff, but how does this promote the fabric of what we’re trying to do? I don’t see the two jelling.”

Deverall, the city’s champion for the project, disagreed, arguing that the project is adding to the city’s look.

“It’s a historic downtown, but it’s not a museum either,” she said. “It’s not like we’re walking in 1800s costume. It’s a modern downtown with a historic character.”

The historic commission is empowered under city ordinance to oversee projects that affect the “visual quality” of Lafayette’s historic district. In 2010, it ordered, successfully, that a brightly colored abstract drawing on the front of the Black Sparrow at 223 Main St. be taken down because it did not receive prior city approval - prompting a public battle with owner Paul Baldwin.

Schwarz suggested that each piece go before a neighborhood forum or come before the commission. But officials at Lafayette’s Community Development Department said such scrutiny is outside the commission’s powers. So, instead, the commission has set out to draft a set of guidelines for “small spaces: Lafayette” and all future projects like it.

With guidelines still yet to be released publicly, Deverall remains optimistic. But even if she and Medler have vastly different visions for Lafayette than Schwarz and Meyer, all of them want the same thing - a better community.

That was what New York Police Department Chief William Bratton and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani wanted in the 1980s. In response to soaring homicide and robbery rates in New York City, Bratton and Giuliani spearheaded a crackdown on small, quality-of-life crimes. One focus was cleaning up and deterring graffiti.

They were backed by the 1980s-era “broken windows theory” - the same one cited by Lafayette officials during the 2007 graffiti crackdown. The theory goes: If people see a community where graffiti isn’t policed and shattered windows are left unfixed, they’ll be led to commit worse offenses. Small crime begets big crime. Graffiti means decreased property values and safety. Some city planners and police departments saw New York City’s historic decline of crime in the 1990s as proof.

But Stefano Bloch, a professor of urban studies and street art at Brown University, says that since 2000, many researchers have challenged the “broken windows theory,” making the case that diversity, tolerance and a vibrant youth culture are the keys to a community’s economic growth - and that graffiti is part of that culture.

“Cultural economy and cultural expression sells neighborhoods,” Bloch said. “If you bring diverse forms of cultural expression in your community, you actually increase property values, lower crime and create a more desirable place.”

That means street art - now an inclusive term that describes yarn bombing, the spontaneous and illegal covering up of public objects with knitted yarn, to social justice vandalism, a form of street art raising awareness on issues such as climate change, to graffiti - can spur economic growth, according to Bloch.

Roswarski, Lafayette’s mayor, said when it comes to making Lafayette cool, street art’s worth considering.

“We know that not everyone’s art fits into this neat little container sometimes. We want people to be able to express themselves. I think we’re open to that discussion,” he said.


Information from: Journal and Courier, https://www.jconline.com

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