Arts & CultureArts Features

Graffiti Remains Criminalized in Charlotte while Street Art Flourishes

If you’ve visited Plaza Midwood or NoDa anytime in the last year or so, you’ve probably noticed a dramatic change in the aesthetic.

Commissioned graffiti murals painted by international artists adorn almost every brick surface. Even parts of Uptown have embraced this beautiful movement of colorful and dynamic street art. In fact, Charlotte is home to over 60 murals, some of which were even “bought” by large corporations to serve as subliminal, decorative advertisements.

In October 2018, Charlotte hosted the Talking Walls Mural Festival, during which organizers “elevated the creative spirit of Charlotte” by hiring nationally and internationally renowned artists to join local muralists in beautifying our city with spray paint cans.

But before these celebrations of legal street art, there were the graffiti bombers, working in the shadows to hone their craft. You can find the roots of Charlotte’s street art movement hidden under bridges amid broken bottles, or sprayed on the sides of trains that will eventually be seen all over the country. The city’s underbelly — underpasses and abandoned lots that serve as the practice field for street art — is home to some of Charlotte’s most vibrantly beautiful work.

An underpass in Charlotte serves as a practice ground for local graffiti artists. (Photo by Jayme Johnson)

Many major cities like Miami, Florida, have dedicated walls and buildings for graffiti artists to practice their art in a way to both embrace and contain the so-called vandalism. Neighborhoods like Wynwood in Miami or Cabbagetown in Atlanta have become tourist destinations thanks to the large amounts of graffiti and street art there.

While Charlotte has embraced the mural movement, the city has yet to provide a legal way for “vandals” to become Van Goghs. The difference between legal and illegal art in Mecklenburg County is stark.

Charlotte has a “graffiti program” which boasts anti-graffiti education and claims to be able to remove any reported graffiti within 48 hours. Most cities lump graffiti artists in with any other vandal, but Mecklenburg County has a specific graffiti ordinance that states, “It shall be unlawful for any person to write, paint, inscribe, scratch, scrawl, spray, place or draw graffiti of any type on any public or private building, structure, sidewalk, or any other real or personal property.”

As for the graffiti writers themselves, charges can add up quickly. First and second offenses carry fines and misdemeanor charges, but the third offense will result in a Class H felony, which carries a jail sentence of 4 to 25 months. That’s a heavier charge than “making terroristic threats”, which is a Class I felony.

Getting to a third offense isn’t difficult in this culture, either. These artists are literally writing their name when they paint, making it incredibly easy to link their work together.

“It is the only form of real art that is still considered illegal,” said one artist who wished to remain anonymous.
Mizta is a Charlotte graffiti artist who has painted legal, commissioned pieces as well as illegal graffiti in the city. He attributes the success of some legal artists to their roots in graffiti.

“Everyone starts somewhere. Without graffiti, many of us wouldn’t be able to get local, let alone nationwide, exposure,” he said.

There isn’t much illegal graffiti out in the open here. Artists paint in unfavorable conditions — wading through water, dodging glass shards, garbage, snakes, rats and dealing with all types of dangerous and uncomfortable circumstances. They stop on busy highways to drop supplies to canvases they can barely climb to. They paint in places that no rational human would venture to just to be able to get in some practice and express themselves.

That being said — and perhaps for that very reason — when you do stumble upon a piece, it is purely stunning. Because they paint in such hazardous and innately ugly environments, the viewer can feel the emotion and care that went into each piece of art.

(Photo by Jayme Johnson)

Bandoe, a native Charlottean who began painting here illegally about 10 years ago, noted the exploitation of the illegal art form by the city. Instead of praising the illegal art-turned-commissioned-work, Charlotte is covering up the roots of muralists and street artists in the city.

“I feel like graffiti here is being commercialized by people who haven’t taken the time to understand the history of graffiti and the dedication that people put into it,” Bandoe explained.

It’s a history that one retired tagger, who also wished to remain anonymous, said goes back as far as human history.
“Everyone just wants to leave their mark on the world,” they said. “Even cavemen painted on walls.”

Like those cave paintings, and any other form of art, graffiti is complex, and isn’t done without reason. While true street artists are typically seen as vandals, criminals and general menaces to society, it’s important to remember the classic techniques and art principles that graffiti artists have to master.

“Everything from pieces, simples, throws and tags all have character style and a whole lot of time put into developing them, not to mention developing an understanding for color theory,” Bandoe elaborated.

Certainly true of murals and canvases, it also rings true for simpler pieces like tags and throw-ups, which often consist of a single name painted by someone who’s “bombing” multiple spots through the night, slapping tags on any surface they can reach.

“For all my boys out there that are strictly bombers, the elements going into that are just as creative. From spot placement to color selection and even pulling off the spot without getting rolled on,” Bandoe said. “It all takes skill and grace, in my opinion”

It is a skill that needs to be learned, practiced and perfected before any artist can dream of being a paid muralist. Unfortunately, in Charlotte these artists have to do it illegally, as there is no legal place for them to work.

Unlike the commissioned murals throughout town, which can fetch artists thousands of dollars, graffiti artists contend with Charlotte’s graffiti program, dedicated solely to erasing their work.

“It’s not about defacing property. I’m not committing a real crime,” said Sneek. “It’s been a great rush and escape for me when I’m going through any emotion, and it’s something I don’t think I could give up or change about myself.”

Another anonymous graffiti artist told Queen City Nerve, “People demonize us as vandals, but we don’t hurt anyone … Even people painting murals probably get a bad look just because it’s sprayed on.”

These artists didn’t start out with a desire to be pariahs. For example, Sneek began his graffiti journey writing cartoon letters in school, only to grow up and notice tags in similar styles of writing.

“[I] hit the streets with no knowledge, but after that first week of mobbing around town in the night alone tagging my first tags, I was hooked,” he recalled.

(Photo by Jayme Johnson)

Mizta began writing graffiti about seven years ago. He was facing unrelated criminal charges at the time, and said that now graffiti keeps him out of more serious trouble.

“I started in train yards, under bridges, running the streets tagging; risking everything for what I love,” he said.

While legally there is a huge divide in the street art community here, there is generally a common love and respect amongst graffiti artists and muralists. Oftentimes the scenes overlap, with artists taking part in both.

While Sneek has no intention of transitioning to legal painting, Mizta, a crossover himself, said, “If you earned the right to have larger public works and you can feed your family doing what you love, then why not?

“I love Charlotte’s illegal graffiti scene because I have met many stand-up and all-around good people through it,” he continued. “We all have a common interests that grows into a brotherhood. From that group, a few go on to do legal art, including me, and we support them just the same.”

Many artists who have made the crossover into commissioned murals haven’t forgotten where they came from and why they started.

“We still paint under bridges, trains, and abandoned places because sometimes the quiet and solace makes the release that much better,” said Mizta.

And it is that emotional release that drives many of Charlotte graffiti artists.

“Graffiti is my church, my therapy, my escape from the corporate world,” Mizta said. “It’s me giving the world something I would do for free and strictly for the love.”

And what exactly are these graffiti artists giving us? Beauty on the fringe, according to Sneek.

“Graffiti is a subculture of not being accepted,” said Sneek. “We go places most people wouldn’t to leave a form of beauty that possibly someone will see.”

For Mizta, it goes even deeper; a pushback against rapid development and gentrification.

“Charlotte and many cities across the U.S. are erasing the history of the people in these cities,” he said. “Graffiti preserves that. Charlotte and other cities go for more nationally known [artists] and pop art because, one, it’s what’s popular now and, two, they are afraid to embrace that which the community deems as ‘ugly,’” he continued. “So, basically they use the tools graffiti came up with to exterminate the art form because they refuse to ‘accept’ the beauty in it.”

(Photo by Jayme Johnson)

Bandoe is critical of the local street art scene. He said he often sees similar styles popping up on walls and worries that it’s giving people the wrong idea about the many potentials for street art in the city.

“I think the mural scene here is very repetitive,” he said. “There’s an overflow of the same types of art which almost makes it lose its luster. Therefore, the community is biased on what’s an acceptable form of graffiti.”

Despite his critical analysis, Bandoe said he has enjoyed watching legalized street art flourish.

“I think it’s great that people are catching on to art because that leaves more room for everyone to have these types of opportunities.”

While there is a fairly common agreement among graffiti artists that the world needs more color — they risk life and limb to prove it, after all — they wish Charlotte would do a better job of giving the burgeoning street art scene, whether that be commissioned muralists or graffiti artists, a closer look before hiring outsiders.

While local artists like Matt Hooker and those with the Southern Tiger Collective have certainly gotten their share of work in recent years, bigger corporations will often hire outside artists for local work.

“Don’t give a job to someone out of state over a local act,” lamented Mizta. “Breed and grow from within to truly enact change on a large scale.”

Charlotte’s graffiti artists are all too aware of the risks they take to beautify the city’s least-visited areas, often with the knowledge that nobody will see the resulting art. They are parents, entrepreneurs, college graduates and baristas who walk among us every day, but at night, they bomb surfaces with their tags and art.

So while the murals around town serve as a beautiful backdrop to happy-hour cocktails, selfies and strolls down North Davidson Street, it’s important to acknowledge the roots of local street art.

The next time a colorful train flies by or you cross a bridge on I-485 and see a piece beautifully splashed across the surface, take a moment to appreciate the practice, discipline and love for art that made it come to life.

At one spot in Charlotte that we’ve agreed to keep secret, one must walk to where the sidewalk ends, follow a tree line to a break in the fence where a string is set up to help folks navigate a rocky path down to a beach that leads to an underpass. There, local graffiti artists have turned an ordinary riverbed into a beautiful landscape. Photographer Jayme Johnson visited recently to shoot photos. 

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