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Right-of-Way

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One afternoon I walked out of my apartment on South Cherry Street and noticed something that had seemed peripheral for about a week: a wooden board bolted to a post where a parking sign would usually be.

On the board was painted a cartoonish bomb and a dove orbiting a stylized mixture of puffy pink clouds and pastel-colored rectangles.

I began to remember other places that I'd seen paintings like this one.

At the corner of China and South Laurel streets in Oregon Hill, there's another art-sign, this one depicting a caricature of the late Larry Levis, celebrated poet and former Virginia Commonwealth University professor, who died of heart failure in 1996. Surrounding his caricature are the lines from "Boy in a Video Arcade," one of Levis' masterpieces.

After I found 80 more signs throughout the city and dug a little deeper, the scope of the project came into focus. A Richmond street artist who calls himself Hope (and asked for anonymity in this story) has found a new home for art in third spaces.

If the first space is owned property and the second space is the promenade, the third space is the rest: the unused and forgotten things, a warehouse slowly crumbling over many years, a bare signpost rusting on the sidewalk.

Hundreds of Hope's individual art-signs are scattered throughout the Fan, Church Hill and downtown Richmond attached to existing signposts (though not obscuring or replacing the sign). But the epicenter of the "exhibit" is a space he calls the "24/7 Gallery," a burned-down pizza shop on East Grace Street between Second and Third streets. Most of the work attached to the plywood that masks the building's charred face is his, but other street artists have begun adding to what has become a de facto public art gallery.

Several of Hope's motifs are present: a series of Anne Frank images; reproduced portions of Pablo Picasso's "Guernica"; and several hummingbird busts wheat-pasted to the wall, the birds appearing to be feeding from a recipe for nectar. There's also a jigsaw puzzle glued onto the front of the building, with portions left unfinished to form the artist's signature within the negative space.

While Hope's art-signs are a relatively benign form of illegal art -- unauthorized signs are deemed a distraction from the public right-of-way by the Richmond city code — the 24/7 Gallery complicates his concept of the third space (though the property is unused, it's privately owned).

"With the 24/7 Gallery, that's somebody's building. I'm defacing it, supposedly," he says. "I don't see how. I'm putting up a bunch of pretty stuff."

But it's pretty stuff he's imposing on someone else's property. "I definitely didn't have any consent to put the stuff on that guy's building, but I felt like I was doing it a service," he says. "It's a burned-out pizzeria — it's not doing anything there. I mean, who wants to look at plywood?"

He walks the thin spray-painted line between expression and vandalism. His signs, while mostly innocuous, are considered obstructions of the right-of-way. The 24/7 Gallery is more blatant: It's destruction of property.

On the other side of that line is Steven Nuckolls, 2nd District board member of Richmond's Clean City Commission. Nuckolls says that "the street-art signs are just as illegal as the campaign or other signs posted in the public right-of-way, with maximum fines of $50 per day for each day [a sign] stays up."

Which for Hope adds up. "I've put up maybe 200-plus ... somewhere around there," he says. "I started doing this seriously about a year and a half ago." So if he's posted roughly 200 signs, and assuming a sign stays up an average of six months (180 days), at $50 a day, the artist could be looking at fines equaling $1.8 million.

The city doesn't stop at fines either. In the past, the city has co-sponsored the Great City Sign-Off, a single-day event during which residents remove illegal signs.

Chesterfield County has taken the initiative to remove illegal signs a few steps further, organizing county-funded training classes, advertising sign-removal initiatives through infomercials and creating a new code compliance specialist position — at a starting salary of $38,944 — with duties specific to organizing sign removal. Chesterfield also offers to waive dump-site fees when disposing of illegal signs. While the battle is mostly against campaign posters and ad fliers, art-signs get caught in that costly legal crossfire. Such initiatives threaten Hope's place in the third space.

Is it fair to toss art-signs in the same bin as the advertisements and campaign fliers? Is it fair to call nondestructive street art illegal — aligned alongside graffiti? Is it wrong to gild the face of an unused building?

In Philadelphia, street artists are rewarded: When artists are caught displaying their art in a public space, the city offers them legal venues to display their work, such as "tag walls," third spaces designated for public art. While Richmond and its counties don't officially encourage these progressive measures, street artists do have supporters in the city.

As co-owner of Ghostprint Gallery, Thea Duskin offers gallery wall space to street artists, while on Broad and Hull streets, the "Vacant Spaces = Artful Places" program uses long-abandoned storefront windows to display art.

The snake is biting its own tail, Duskin says: "If [downtown Richmond] is going to be [the city's] arts district, then don't punish artists for making art. These people are donating their art to the public."

The benefits of street art are simple for Duskin: Street art creates something that people will want to come back to — more people will visit Richmond's downtown arts district if there is more art to look at.

For now, Richmond likes its art to be kept indoors — decorating offensively destitute pizzerias is still an offense.

"The ideas of legality and illegality are really nonsense when you see something that's really pretty," Hope says. "That's what I'm trying to do; I'm trying to beautify the city." S



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