Street art event at NKU raises questions about Tri-State graffiti

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. - Students, street artists and community activists made their way to the campus of Northern Kentucky University to raise money for a good cause and ask a socially-minded question in the process.

The school hosted the first GraffitiFest on Wednesday, an event featuring 12 local artists creating live graffiti art to benefit local and international charities. It also featured live music, food and even "mainstreamed" by showcasing many of the school's young entrepreneurs.

In front of NKU's Griffin Hall, each artist used various tools ranging from standard paint to spray paint to come up with an original work under the theme of “relief.”

The 4-foot by 8-foot paintings were sold at the end of the day via silent auction, and proceeds will benefit the artists and four charities: the American Red Cross, Visionaries and Voices, Revive the Heart and ArtWorks.

"These charities each represent a unique perspective on the event’s theme - relief," according to event organizer Jason Hulett, 31, a senior at the school.

In addition to raising money for a myriad of good causes, the event also offered the chance to exhibit an oft-belittled and socially rebuked form of creative expression.

"It's a way to show off graffiti in a positive light and show how it can help enhance the community instead of treating it down," Hulett said of Wednesday's event.

Artist "Aqur" agreed.

"You can come to festivals like this and get recognition for what you want instead of doing it where you're not supposed to."

Even though many of the creations are beautiful, respected works of art, they're not always wanted by the community - or at least not the owner(s) of the property where the graffiti ends up.

Earlier this month Scott Ponder , a business owner in Northside, said he looked outside shop’s window and saw a large display of freshly painted red graffiti on a wall in what he called the heart of the neighborhood.

“Man this is just wrong, this is not cool at all,” Ponder said about seeing the unwanted tag from a band promoting its upcoming show. “Just knowing how important that corner is to the neighborhood...it doesn’t mean the same to them as it does to the Northside people.”

In February , Geraldine Lambrecht reported an "eyesore" on the side of the empty Day’s Inn in Fort Wright.

Lambrecht said she wasn't so upset by the graffiti as the perception that it meant crime was in the area.

Part of the reason artists pick their spots has to do with the excitement of doing something illegal or taboo.

"You'd sit there for hours watching the security guards. It was the best game of cat and mouse you could play," said England-based artist Glynn Judd told The Guardian in 2013 . "(W)hen they left I would paint the train, take a photograph, and leave. The adrenalin rush was amazing, and difficult to replicate."

For artists like graffiti writer "Esio" it's just about creating something beautiful in otherwise "boring" spaces.

"People want to see beautiful things instead of boring gray walls," said the masked artist, adding that he has done "criminal things" as part of his creative process.

Not all street art consists of poorly designed, spray-painted advertisements scribbled on random walls, though. Many graffiti artists are highly trained craftsman whose work is celebrated worldwide, such as Aqur, Esio and the rest of the taggers at NKU on Wednesday.

Some of the more respected artists in the field are Zephyr, Invader, Revok and Shepard Fairey .

Fairey's work is well-known to Cincinnatians due in large part to his Obey fashion line, his museum display at the Contemporary Arts Center and the handful of murals (some of which remain in tact) on buildings throughout the Greater Cincinnati area.

However, even great art needs to be wanted in order to be embraced.

The organization Keep City Beautiful told WCPO that it doesn't believe enough is being done to help mitigate the spread of graffiti on overpass bridges, abandoned buildings and various other surfaces across the city.

A look at the Cincinnati most recent budget said local leaders don't view it as a small problem, either.

The city budgets $500,000 a year to handle painting over and repairing damages caused by taggers' graffiti and similar types of vandalism, according to Gerald Checco, interim director of the Department of Public Services. 

So far this year they've spent $91,751, Checco said.

But some businesses and organizations are trying to find a way to blend the world of street art with responsible business practices.

One such organization is Higher Level Art , a Cincinnati-based collective of artists that specializes in murals, signs, exhibitions and exclusive custom projects.

HLA designers, which took part in Wednesday's event, described their work as "fun for all ages" on their Facebook page .

They've created works across the Tri-State and the world in venues ranging from libraries to global advertising firms to mom-and-pop storefronts. But the difference between their murals and those of many other

taggers is they ask permission first.

“We like to be the voice of the street, a hand-painted news feed,” said Matthew Dayler, 39, who founded the firm in 2008 along with Danny Babcock.

Dayler created one of his most recent works in the early morning hours of December 6 as way to pay respect to the legacy of Nelson Mandela . Despite the timing of the project, the owner of the building at 1430 Walnut Street in Over-the-Rhine gave him permission, Dayler said.

“Being allowed to paint it in OTR played a role in the creation of the mural," Dayler said. “(The neighborhood) is microcosm of the happenings elsewhere.”

Commissioning or allowing works is one to both support the arts and help cut down on undesired graffiti, according to Julie Aseere, with Division Overhead Door.

The vibrantly colored paint and stereotypical lettering on the garage of the building on Dallway Avenue is visible from Interstate 71 and the owners couldn't be happier.

The company brought in professional artists to paint it three times. Since then, it hasn't been illegally tagged once, Aseere said.

"This has been almost a year now. We haven't had any graffiti on any part of the building whatsoever," she said.

Jerome Macon, owner of aptly named auto-body store All About Colors on Central Parkway, agrees.

"Since it's been up here, I've had nobody tag it, no other tags and...I haven't seen any tagging going on around here," he said. "People respect other people's art." 

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To stay current on GraffitiFest news, follow on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/Graffitifest  or Twitter at @GraffitiFest .

Photos: Graffitifest at NKU

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