It’s amazing how times change.
When Sara and I started the Wooster Collective eight years ago, it felt to us at the time that the ONLY lens the media was providing as a way into understanding street art and graffiti was vandalism. As a gatekeeper, mass media’s control of what was being said about graffiti and street art made it impossible for most people to appreciate the positive role that it can play in our lives. The media had shut out, and refused to amplify, any diversity of thought. And because of this, graffiti has never been recognized by mainstream society as an “important” art movement. Even though it’s in every city in the world.
We want this to change.
The great thing about the Internet, as we all know, is that no media company or city government controls it. Any of us, including two people who happen to live on Wooster Street, can become a media entity. All they need is a point-of-view. By simply celebrating unauthorized acts of public art when it seemed nobody else was - and then having people spread the positive message it sends - Wooster, by happenstance, has in essence become a media entity.
As the popularity of the Wooster website started to grow, and we began meeting other people who felt the same way as we did, it quickly became clear to us that MANY people understood that graffiti and street art was not about just about vandalism. But rather, that it raises important issues about the need to reclaim our public space; the need for us to affirm our existence on this planet by writing on walls; the need and importance of spontaneous acts of creativity to make our cities more “livable”. And so, so much more.
So last month when we received an invitation to attend a briefing at The White House (yes, that one), we were at first a bit shocked, definitely skeptical, and finally, after giving it a lot of thought - absolutely delighted. To be included in the conversation at the level of The White House, we felt, was a huge testament that our voice (meaning our collective voice) was being heard.
Yesterday, along with about sixty amazing organizations who are committed to grassroots arts initiatives, we met with various officials in the Obama Administration, to listen and learn what the administration was thinking in regards to the Arts, to ask questions, and then to participate in working sessions on issues that we felt passionate about. (Ours was the need to better understand the issues around public and private space)
We know that a lot of people will hate us for going to The White House. But for us, the goal of attending the meetings yesterday was not to attempt to “partner” with government on anything. Or to ask for their acceptance. The power of street art is that you don’t ask for, nor need, permission. At best, it’s about tolerance and understanding.
For us, we felt the issues related to the disappearance of common access to our public space and the need for a deeper understanding of what is and what is not “art” should not be limited to those who read blogs – especially ours. Talking solely to “the converted” will get you only so far. We learned a while back that when you have a chance to sit at the table you take it. Even if those around the table are not people you fully trust.
So all of this is to say that we felt that by going to meet with officials in the new Obama Administration we were representing not us, but all of you. It wasn’t about stroking our ego or having a photo-op with the President (which didn’t happen). It was about letting people who make decisions at the highest level know that the definition of what “art” is needs to change in our society. If art is “over there” and health and science and transportation is “over here” - then art will always be something that is perceived as elitist, misunderstood, undervalued, etc. It will always be something that is only found in museums and in galleries, not put on our streets and on our walls with the artist taking the risk of getting arrested.
Again - our definitions need to change. An we think Obama can do that. At the very least he can start to move the needle forward.
The amazing thing we found out yesterday is that there are people working directly for Obama who get it. We know this not from what they said, but from the diversity of their backgrounds.
Yes, there are indeed graffiti artists working in The White House!
On Monday, when we told a friend that we were heading down to Washington to participate in these meetings, he said - “That what I voted for!”
We felt the same way.
And that’s why we went to the White House.