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John Lamb, Published May 19 2013

Vandalism or art?: Although it’s against the law, many see a place for local street art

FARGO - Spring is the season when the snow melts away and reveals what lies beneath and colors start to bloom.

But not everything revealed is appreciated.

Fargo police Deputy Chief Pat Claus said spring is the department’s busiest time for fielding complaints about graffiti.

Over the years, graffiti has evolved from basic lines and obscenities scrawled on public spaces to increasingly elaborate tags, or stylized signatures.

Recently, more graphically designed paintings with less free-hand work have popped up in corners of downtown Fargo and on some Moorhead underpasses.

“You get ones who are more stylized. Even ones that are tagging do it in a more complex pattern,” Claus said. “Then we got the taggers who just throw up whatever their tag is. Then we started seeing these paint and stencil sets for apparently the graffiti-challenged individuals, can’t stylize the stuff.”

Seemingly influenced by internationally known graffiti artist Banksy, these pieces are often smaller, appear stenciled, are frequently only black and white, and create an identifiable image while rarely using text.

An image of what looks like a Civil War soldier reading a letter is hidden away high on one building, while on a nearby wall a panda lurks. A black cat stands at the bottom of a grey door. A series of birds form a diamond pattern on the back of an old, brick building.

These newest works have attracted both fans and detractors who happen to come across the pieces and revive an old discussion: When, if ever, does graffiti rise to the level of street art or is it always vandalism? Is it more amenable if graffiti is tucked away in an alley instead of defacing a more highly-visible space? Are such works hidden gems or dark marks on downtown?

“Still graffiti, still against the law,” Claus said.

It may be against the law, but others see a place for it – provided it’s the right place.

“If I saw a great piece of art in the wrong location, I’d consider that vandalism,” said Chelsea Thorson, when asked what the difference is between vandalism and street art. “Choice of location defines good urban art.”

Thorson taught a 3-D design class at North Dakota State University and organized a project in April in which students installed temporary art projects around downtown.

She supports a form of “urban intervention,” creating art in spaces “that may be dull or overlooked.”

She points to a utility pole and explains her fondness for a small black and white bird next to what appears to be an Asian character.

“It’s clearly not harming anyone,” she said. “That’s the best, tiny little pieces of art. You wonder who did it. It’s very personal. Intimate and personal are the best. There is some very poetic graffiti spray paint art that causes you to stop and consider; that’s part of the fun for me as a viewer.”

But one person painting on property that isn’t theirs is still wrong, says aerosol artist Paul Ide.

“If you make marks on something that doesn’t belong to you, it’s vandalism,” he said. “There’s not a lot of flexibility in that definition.”

Ide has had a hand in creating some of Fargo’s most colorful and well-loved graffiti murals, but always with the property owner’s consent.

His “Hip Hop Don’t Stop” events created the picture of penguins on the north side of what was Artic Audio, just off Main Avenue and Eighth Street in Fargo, and the former “Kung-Fu Panda”-inspired painting by the Plains Art Museum.

But clandestine spray-painting isn’t in his portfolio and he said he’s had nothing to do with any recent graffiti.

“I have too much at stake to lose,” said the father of two.

Still, he appreciates the work.

“I look for it. Knowing I can’t do it makes me smile when I see kids do it … so that we can have a little extra delight in our day. Now I can live vicariously through them,” he said at Thursday night’s opening for his new art exhibit, “Beyond Functional,” at DK Custom Framing at Gallery 14 in Fargo. His work combines his spray paint art with his work in ceramics.

He understands that a property owner may not appreciate graffiti like he does.

“The building owner and passer-by will have totally different perspectives,” he said.

Not always.

Doug Burgum saw Ide’s spray paint work and had him paint a mural of a wheat field on a wall behind 300 Broadway, the building Burgum’s company Kilbourne Group built and where the businessman now lives.

Burgum said Kilbourne Group has had to remove graffiti from its buildings, but added some work rises above vandalism.

“You’ve got forms of graffiti that are out and out pure vandalism,” he said. “Then there’s pieces that are thoughtful and creative and interesting and fun and provocative and really is street art.”

He points to a piece in the alley behind Kilbourne Group’s office at 102 Broadway. On the east side of the Avalon Event Center, a white cut-out box extends down a wall and out a few feet into the alley. In the space on the ground is written in bold, stenciled letters, “STAND HERE FOR PICTURE”.

The alley is a favorite spot for area photographers who bring clients – everything from wedding parties to rock bands and high school seniors – there for portraits.

“It’s kind of a nonstop parade of people in those alleys,” Burgum said. “It kind of cracked me up when I saw (the graffiti). … That isn’t our building, but you’re sort of happy that the Avalon people in some ways have decided to leave that one up.”

“It took guts for someone to do that. I admire that one,” Thorson said, referring to the work as an example of the kind of smart commentary good street art can provide.

Burgum feels good street art helps mark “a vibrant urban core” and is a sign that downtown is attracting creative types.

“Support and acceptance for spontaneous street art is part of what makes an interesting and great place,” he said. “The people that are being creative about street art, whoever they are, those are people helping make this a special, unique place.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533