Graffiti in Kingston: Blight, brilliance or both?

The thoroughly tagged-up portion of Kevin Freligh’s mural at the Schwenk Drive parking lot. (photo by Dan Barton)

The morning of May 9, businesses along Broadway corridor were greeted with a fresh new rash of graffiti tags. Broadway Joe’s, for example, had bubble letters each the size of a person affixed to their streetside brick wall. Meanwhile, Instagrammer “cash_medoing_fills” proudly posted multiple videos of himself and company doing the deeds. The videos feature the graffiti being applied onto poorly lit walls — one being Broadway Joe’s — with the sound of busy spray cans working quickly, and men whispering.  Hubris, some might say; others might call it creators’ pride in their work. Another Instagram post is a photo of the storeowner cleaning it the next morning. It’s captioned “RIP.”

On a recent evening, Jay Reeder of the Kingston Candy Store parked his business’ spiffy new box van in the Uptown parking lot adjacent to the old Woolworth’s lot on Crown Street. Plans for a custom truck wrap by Timely Signs were under way, but within two days, the temporary white blank canvas of Reeder’s 13-foot box truck proved to be too inviting. A large red graffiti tag “static” — often seen around town these days — was plastered on the truck’s side. The same tag littering the face of nearby dumpsters, planters and walls.

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Reeder called the KPD, which took pictures, commiserated and advised him on more secure parking strategies. Reeder was told his name would be added to a list for restitution. Only days later, a second tag, “oyei” (who also posts his tags on Instagram as @nygraf) appeared. Feeling defeated, Reeder did not bother to call the police and questioned his plans to spend money on a custom wrap that could possibly be tagged once again.  Shortly thereafter, Reeder was greeted with the third tag: “ISB.”

“I want to put a sign on my truck that says they are ruining something beautiful,” said Reeder. “But I don’t want to invite them to do even more.”

Kingston Police Detective Lt. Thierry Croizer said graffiti is a cultural thing, but it ain’t pretty. “This isn’t art, it is a nuisance,” said Croizer. “It’s an underground culture where these guys go around and put their tags up. It’s not like the [mural] art being put up on our old buildings. They don’t care whose property they damage, or the cost to the owners.  Sad to see that.”

The night of May 2 saw numerous tags pop up, and then again May 9. In addition to Broadway Joe, Joe Beez, Monkey Joe and others along Broadway, walls on Cornell Street, O’Neil Street, Andrew Street and more, were given obnoxiously fresh new tags.  How can such a deed so obvious, at such a large scale and in such a conspicuous locale as a busy and highly visible Broadway possibly go down without notice? “It doesn’t take long,” answered Croizer. “You wouldn’t believe how quickly you could write something in graffiti. I have seen videos of it. Bubble letters are about a minute, max. It’s amazing how quickly they do it. More than one person makes it go that much faster.”

(By the way, the KPD would like to talk to anyone who has any information on these incidents. Call (845) 331-4499 or use their Facebook page to submit an anonymous tip.)

According to the Center for Problem-Oriented Policing, a non-profit organization of police practitioners, researchers and universities dedicated to the advancement of problem-oriented policing, “Rapid identification and removal of graffiti has been shown to reduce its occurrence.”

Kevin Freligh’s mural before it got painted over on Wednesday morning.

The site offers four major types of removal or cover-ups: painting over graffiti, the most common and relatively cheapest method of removing it. Another method is chemically, with paint-removing chemicals. Sandblasting or high-pressure washing is an option, albeit labor intensive. Replacing signs, materials and other items vandalized is another option. Replacement is appropriate for materials from which graffiti cannot be painted over, chemically removed or cleaned.

But sometimes removal causes more problems than it solves. On Wednesday morning, the first tour of school kids organized by the O+ Festival of the various murals of Kingston started their day with a visit to the one by Kevin Freligh done in 2014 that adorned the walls of the Schwenk Drive municipal parking lot. Much to their surprise, they found city workers there in the process of painting it over. While most murals are generally left alone by taggers, this one in recent months had been defaced repeatedly and the city, apparently, decided to paint the whole thing battleship gray.

“We’re all just heartbroken,” said the festival’s Joe Concra. He described the mural as having “the most amazing gradations of color I’ve ever seen” and bemoaned the destruction of a “gift” from Freligh to the city.

“I wish the city would have reached out to us,” said Concra, who noted that he had talked to the mayor and that Mayor Steve Noble expressed remorse. We reached out to the city for a comment, but didn’t get one back before press time.

The city did respond previously to some questions. There is a law, Chapter 250 of the city code, which states a property owner has 15 days from when a citation is received to remove graffiti. A $250 fine is called for if compliance doesn’t happen, but according to city spokeswoman Megan Weiss-Rowe, the goal is to work with property owners to get the problem solved. “It is often the case that the graffiti is removed and the fine is waived,” Weiss-Rowe wrote in a May 23 email.

While the city doesn’t have anything in its budget to help pay for graffiti removal, Weiss-Rowe wrote, “the Kingston Local Development Corporation has a grant program that provides matching funds for business owners wishing to improve the façades of their buildings. A property owner whose building has graffiti on its façade could apply for matching grant funds. … The mayor is also interested in speaking to the Community Development Committee about this issue and to see if they would like to consider such a remediation program in eligible program areas for future funding years.”

She also wrote in that email, “Our graffiti removal efforts will be increased beginning next week as additional seasonal staff start working. I am awaiting the specific dates of graffiti removal on the walls of the municipal lot at the site of the old parking garage. Unfortunately, a portion of that lot will have to be closed in order for the city to remediate the significant graffiti.”

RUPCO Vice President of Community Development Guy Kempe said RUPCO moves swiftly to remove graffiti on any of its properties, as graffiti connotes ownership, a marking of territory. “From a community development perspective, graffiti is considered an evidence of blight, neglect, raises concerns about safety and gang violence and has a delirious effect on property values and neighborhood livability,” said Kempe.

 

Love at first site 

Tyler Borchert of the Rondout’s StoneStyling—a Kingston born and bred artist—spoke candidly about his former days as a graffiti artist. He said it’s all about the high, in many cases, literally.

Borchert first got in trouble, proverbially dipping his fingers in the paint at age 9, for applying his budding artwork to his grandfather’s chimney.  Borchert, a visual artist and sculpture known for his stacked stone and driftwood sculptures along the Rondout, was first exposed to the unconventional medium from graffiti magazines around age 13. “The colors were mind-blowing,” said Borchert. In awe of the entire art culture he saw featured, Borchert pilfered cans of paint from his grandparent’s garage, and said he would ride his bike to places with concrete walls, but not just any wall. “As a young kid, I was taught not to vandalize people’s property,” he said. So Borchert confined his artwork to under bridges, train trestles, spaces behind abandoned buildings and spaces hidden within crevasses. “Anything not exposed to people’s eyes,” he said. “Everyone is different, but you don’t do it for the attention; you do it for the inspiration of wanting to do more because it’s a drug, a drug of choice … Art is literally like an addictive drug. Once you do it, taste it, see it … how can you not want to do it again?”

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Another tagged-up section of the Uptown garage. (photo by Dan Barton)

Borchert feels that the increasing presence of the growing arts community in Kingston is summoning artists of all kinds, and graffiti is basically one of their many mediums. He further speculated that Kingston’s numerous murals invite graffiti artists looking to have their “logo” out there.

“Tag” recognition is so alluring that height or elevations are often an element, an extremely alluring one. “The higher up you get, you are pushing the rush because you’re hanging on the building … You see lights, don’t know or care if it’s the police, the building owner … because you’re letting your art breathe,” said Borchert. “There is such a rush hanging upside down above everyone’s heads … by putting your name up high, it’s like putting yourself up there, on another level, above, to look up to.”

Visual artist and Broadway Arts studio owner Joe LaLima Jr. has devoted his newly refinished studio space on 694 Broadway to feature graffiti-related art exhibits, many by Kingston residents. LaLima concurred with Borchert about the importance of “placement” — the grandeur of height as being incredibly appealing. LaLima said he relishes looking at each tag to figure out where they stood, how they got there and even whether they were a leftie or righty.

Like most other graffiti artists, LaLima feels he is making improvements. He described graffiti in a way that many others might not. “It’s like taking an eyesore, and adding something beautiful,” he said, gesturing to a badly rusted sign post with a swirling, glossy silver tag running down it. “[Graffiti] improves it, like placing a jewel.” This, LaLima insisted, is about abandoned spots, or spots where the owner’s given the green light. “This is not the same as what happened to Broadway Joe’s,” he emphasized. “That offended me in a deep way.” LaLima said the graffiti of his youth was more of a rebellion thing, but as he matured, so did his art.

LaLima has been devoting walls of his building, and soon and “permission walls” of neighboring buildings, for full mural pieces to show budding graffiti artists various techniques and materials — and more importantly, the responsible and ethical ways of making graffiti art. LaLima is organizing groups of kids to do mural pieces around Kingston, and even has support from his neighbors for his plans to host a mural festival in his exterior space.  “Some of these kids are fascinating artists, and this is just one aspect of it.”

 

Blowing off steam

“GRABR,” who asked his identity be withheld, said “laying graffiti” feels like venting, a cathartic experience. “One thing I have always loved about graffiti is that you could be in the middle of nowhere, spot a tag from one of your homies, and not feel like you’re alone,” said GRABR. “I have always thought about a hundred years ago when masons would carry their chisel and hammer with them, and leave their mark along their trail.”

He, LaLima and Borchert all agreed that placement is key and part of the art.

“It becomes tactical,” said GRABR. “Scope it out, figure out the best way to get in and out.” One strong deterrent to errant graffiti, LaLima and GRABR both agree, is to have several respected graffiti artists to fill in tempting locations with a mural.

GRABR said his identity stands for “Going Racking and Boosting Regularly,” which he said was a large part of his childhood. Neither LaLima nor Borchert were willing to disclose their former graffiti names, though LaLima has created a new one, “IAM2ND”, referring to his spiritual convictions. LaLima and GRABR both said they have mountains of sketchbooks, as most serious graffiti artists do, filled with designs. “I create a piece in a book, and then it evolves,” said GRABR, who added he wrote his tag thousands of times on paper to develop the style.

GRABR said he doesn’t think too much of the graffiti seen around Kingston is gang-related, though he did point out that there are four different gangs in four different Kingston Midtown zones. He said alcohol can play itself in the process, but often leads to diminished judgment. GRABR said he’s been arrested three times for graffiti and said that one must accept that about 75 percent of what a graffiti artist lays will be removed.