Is the writing on the wall for graffiti artists?
It’s a harsh and twisted world if people truly think a young graffiti artist deserved to die. Ryan Smith was 17. He was stupid. He died trying to scale a bridge to spraypaint his tag on it. But he didn’t ‘deserve’ to die.
Radio talkback this morning moved swiftly from tokenistic sympathy for Smith to serious discussions of the ‘war on graffiti’. War? With kids as collateral?
Online, people said his death was ‘natural justice’, that he was an ‘idiot’ who ‘paid the consequences’, that he’s a contender for the Darwin Awards.
It’s hard to work out why graffiti artists, or vandals, or whatever you want to call them, are targets for such brutal treatment.
Do drink drivers deserve to die? What if it was your child, who foolishly had one beer too many before driving home?
Do drug takers deserve to die? What if it was a troubled friend, having one last fling before another attempt to turn their lives around?
At 17 your brain isn’t fully formed, you don’t know the consequences of your actions. So you do stupid things. You get in that car, you climb that bridge, you take that drug.
Chances are every single cold-hearted, sneering person who thinks Ryan Smith earned his lonely and tragic death had, at some stage in their youth, done something equally stupid. But for some reason - perhaps because people are slapped in the face with bad graffiti every time they leave the house - a special brand of vitriol is reserved for people who graffiti.
Graffiti in one form or another has been around since cave painting. It’s used for expressions of love, or political statements. It can be powerful, or beautiful, or revoltingly ugly.
Melbourne has become Australia’s graffiti capital, and the National Library is even archiving a graffiti website because of its social and cultural value.
In Adelaide there are whimsical paste-ups of Einstein on a bicycle, and state-sanctioned pieces on big, blank walls.
London-based ‘street artist’ Banksy has gone from anonymous mischief-maker to mainstream artist. Graffiti is now shown in serious exhibitions and coffee-table books.
Across the Middle East, graffiti is a tool for political activism, a place people can anonymously attack their governments, or express their desire for peace.
Mostly, though, graffiti is loud, uninspired, shallow territorial marking.
I’m not familiar with Ryan Smith’s body of work. He may be a genius.
But even if he’s the most obnoxious and talentless kid to ever wield a spraycan, he didn’t deserve to die.
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