Or Gent, if you are properly Dutch. The image next to my name isn’t mine, and I’m heedlessly appropriating it without consideration of its author. My original photo has a teeny signature tagged in the lower corner, but I can’t make it out – so apologies if this is yours and you think I’ve stolen it. And I have, actually.
This and the photo below were taken in 2007 at one of the ‘official’ graffiti walls in Gent. The Flemish, like their fellow Dutch-speakers in the Netherlands, seem to have hit upon the stunningly bright idea that perhaps the way to deal with a potentially socially disruptive ‘vice’ is to legalize it and regulate it (some of the Flemish suburbs of Brussels have taken a similar approach to prostitution, which came as a bit of a surprise to me in an early morning, jet-lagged fog – “what are all those store fronts doing open at 7am?” I wondered as I peered down from the train coming into the city from the airport. Oh.). So yeah – there are officially sanctioned graffiti walls, subways, abandoned buildings, etc. all over Flanders (a YouTube search turns up lots of video of various artists in action, and all kinds of graffiti collectives are google-able).
They even painted the bars on the windows fluorescent colors. This was an alleyway that, if not painted, would probably have discouraged a lot of folks from walking through. And frankly, the more public art, the better, as far as I’m concerned. We could do with a little more in my corner of the world (reason #32 why I am Disgruntled in Pennsylvania: More art! More color, please!). From some of the YouTube stuff, I was able to figure out that many of the artists (individuals and collectives) need to register with the local authorities for permission to paint – what I don’t know, and didn’t think to ask when I was there, was whether there is a particular time duration for stuff to be up before it gets painted over, whether you get a ‘turn’ to paint and then someone else gets the space for a while, and whether it is verboten to paint over someone else’s image. There must be all kinds of interesting norms that have sprung up around these practices.
It did strike me, though, that while official recognition of local artists is great, and giving them public space to use is even better, what does this say about the possibility for graffiti to be subversive? My admittedly casual perusal of Gent and of stuff on-line didn’t turn up anything really politically charged (nothing, for example, condemning the rise of the Flemish extreme right. Or anything erotic or sexual at all). So does the willingness of artists to work with the state change the possibilities for artistic expression? I haven’t seen enough Flemish graffiti to know. But in any event, I like the idea that someone in a position of power cares enough about supporting artists that there is even the possibility of something like this.