Corporate Graffiti

At Shaker Square, a newly revitalized shopping area in Cleveland, it looked like neighborhood vandals had scrawled graffiti on the display windows of the Gap clothing store. Spray-painted in huge black letters were the words "Freedom" and "Independence."

Disappointed merchants, who had worked for years to rehab the neighborhood, called the property manager to report the graffiti and have it removed. They were shocked to learn that the graffiti was part of a promotion by Gap "intended as a kicky, free-spirited approach to Independence Day." A spokesman for the San Francisco based company noted that although Gap had received some complaints from residents of the area, "it was doing fine in other stores across the country."

Meanwhile, in Chicago, where graffiti is considered such a widespread problem that it is illegal to sell cans of spray paint, city officials were amazed to discover that computer giant IBM was behind a campaign which spray-painted hundreds of penguins, hearts, and peace symbols on public sidewalks. Part of IBM's "Peace, Love, and Linux" marketing campaign to draw attention to its version of the Linux operating system, the graffiti was intended to help Big Blue shed its stuffy, corporate image. When an employee of IBM was arrested, the local newspaper headline read: "Big Blue has been caught red-handed." IBM was fined $18,000 by the city, and will also have to pay the costs of blasting away the pavement graffiti.

"We're rather surprised�it's such a reputable company," said a spokesman from Chicago's Streets and Sanitation Department, which bears the ongoing burden of removing graffiti from city property.

What were these companies thinking? Did they really believe that, like anonymous graffiti artists, they could get away with tagging public property in major cities with their latest corporate insignias and trademarked slogans? They're just lucky that they're multinational conglomerates and not teenagers, or they could have really been spanked.

Because in 1996, the California State Assembly approved a bill to allow spankings for teens convicted of graffiti vandalism. Under the law a Juvenile Court judge can order a youth convicted of the crime to be paddled up to 10 times by his or her parents, in court, with a large wooden paddle. If the parents refuse or the judge thinks the parent didn't swing hard enough, the judge can order a bailiff to conduct the spanking.

Perhaps they do the same thing behind closed doors in corporate America. Maybe the marketing executives in charge of these graffiti campaigns have already been brought up to the CEO's penthouse and told to pull down their Armani suit pants and bend over for the VP in charge of corporate corporal punishment.

Graffiti has become such a huge law enforcement nuisance that Star Wars technology is now being deployed against it. The Lawrence Livermore Labs has developed a $250,000 anti-graffiti laser, which many experts consider to be the future of graffiti removal technology. While this may sound expensive, the cost of graffiti removal in the Los Angeles area alone is estimated at $100 million a year, and across the U.S. at more than $7 billion a year. Whether to trust a $250,000 laser to employees of the sanitation department is a separate question. Perhaps once they get good enough at zapping graffiti off freeway bridges, they can become our first line of defense against incoming ballistic missiles.

The debate about graffiti used to be, "Is it vandalism or is it art?" Now it's becoming, "Is it vandalism or is it advertising?" A San Francisco sanitation official who was responsible for cleaning up IBM's tagging campaign there said, "We can't have companies turning all the city's sidewalks into ads." Why not? If they're willing to pay for it, why not turn downtown sidewalks into a monopoly board for corporate capitalism, just as they've done with virtually every other surface on our urban and virtual landscape?

Businessmen used to be the most vocal opponents of urban graffiti. But now it appears that what they're really thinking is, "If a 16-year-old punk kid doesn't have to pay to deface public property, then why should we?" Likewise, graffiti upsets public officials not because it disturbs the visual landscape, but because they don't get a kickback from it. Graffiti artists don't make campaign contributions, unlike cigarette and beer companies. Consequently, abstract graffiti messages are a blight upon our neighborhoods, but giant billboards for the Marlboro Man or the Budweiser frog help promote free enterprise and build our tax base.

Is graffiti art? As part of their annual Folklife Festival, the Smithsonian Museum is displaying a graffiti covered New York City subway on the National Mall in Washington. While New York officials consider the graffiti to be a display of uncontrolled criminal activity, and hope that the perpetrators are apprehended, many admirers of art think graffiti is a glorious expression that gives the otherwise dank and sterile subways a character and beauty found nowhere else.

It is this anarchic, free-spirited expression that corporations are now trying to co-opt and turn into advertising campaigns. Anything that appeals to our sense of beauty or freedom, can and will, eventually be used to try to sell us more crap. But as long as we don't give our money to these graffiti makers, they will eventually disappear, except for the ones who make graffiti for graffiti's sake.

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