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Graffiti in New Orleans 

Della Hasselle on the neighborhood groups trying to eradicate graffiti — and those who say it’s public art

click to enlarge Fred Redtke, aka The Gray Ghost, (right) covers graffiti, along with Operation Clean Sweep member Richard Lane.

Photo by Cheryl Gerber

Fred Redtke, aka The Gray Ghost, (right) covers graffiti, along with Operation Clean Sweep member Richard Lane.

On Broad Street in Mid-City, a mural sprawls across one side of an abandoned bank between Canal Street and Cleveland Avenue. In the middle is a giant fist flanked by flags of green, yellow and red. On the left, men and women in cap and gown lead a procession.

  "Don't let someone who gave up on their dreams talk you out of your own," reads a thought bubble in Pan-African colors, coming from the painting of a dark-skinned girl sitting on the right. A few feet away, behind a patterned design, there are the words, "Be more than powerful."

  On the other side of the bank is a very different scene. Traces of graffiti can be seen underneath giant rectangular splotches of light gray paint. Evidence of former markings, now covered, appears in several spots along the faded brick wall.

  Similiar scenes stretch along several avenues, nooks and crannies of the city, where new patches of primer and colored paint appear almost as quickly as the graffiti and street art it covers. As neighborhood organizations hire companies to cover illegal graffiti, and more graffiti artists fight for expression, the canvas of New Orleans is hosting a sort of artistic turf war.

  Street artists and neighborhood organizations aren't the only ones divided. Residents, at least one photographer and even a historian have written blogs, posted on social media and submitted op-eds to weigh in on the age-old questions: What constitutes art? Where does it belong?

  "This is one of the few ways they could ever get their message out to the world," says Sam Ballen, a lawyer who is also the co-creator of the blog New Orleans Graffiti.

  Ballen says his blog showcases the city's local artists. Of all the pieces he's photographed, his favorite is located in Holy Cross. Inside a simple heart reads the message, "How Subversive Love Is."

  "I just enjoy its simplicity and its message," Ballen said in an email. "There is much more technically impressive work in this city, but I think this piece illustrates why graffiti is important. Someone with the skills to be making a piece like that will never have their work in a gallery."

  Ballen acknowledges that street art is illegal in New Orleans without proper city permits, despite what some see as law enforcement's lackadaisical approach to controling it. In a recent editorial in The Lens, New Orleans author and Central Asia-Caucasus Institute chairman at Johns Hopkins University, S. Frederick Starr, criticized Mayor Mitch Landrieu's lack of graffiti remediation.

  Without it, Starr says, property owners and neighborhood organizations are responsible for finding their own means to eradicate graffiti or other artwork in both private and public spaces.

  Volunteers, such as Mid-City Neighborhood Organization member Roux Merlo, pitch in hours of their time.

  "The base-line reality on graffiti is that the City of New Orleans does nothing to enforce its own laws, even on its own property," Starr said in an email. "There are many models of cities that have successfully eliminated most graffiti and hence (there's) no need to reinvent the wheel. If City Hall focused on this, the problem would be solved. Until then, everything is a Band-Aid."

  The Landrieu administration responded in an email saying, "Revitalizing our neighborhoods and keeping the city clean is a priority that we all share. The city has worked directly with Operation Clean Sweep to remediate graffiti throughout New Orleans by providing workforce grants and leveraging resources from partners like the French Quarter Business Association.

  "Current city code requires individual property owners to remove graffiti from private properties, and the city works to educate residents and businesses on this responsibility.

  "City departments remove graffiti on public properties they manage. For example, the Department of Sanitation recently refurbished over 300 city-owned litter cans in the French Quarter that had graffiti on them. In addition, our quarterly NOLA For Life days include graffiti removal at parks and playgrounds, and the city has awarded grants in the past to neighborhood groups who presented plans to revitalize their neighborhood, including graffiti removal."

Like the city, property owners or neighborhood groups who can afford it call Operation Clean Sweep of New Orleans, a private company that's become known for leaving behind squares of gray primer paint where graffiti once was.

click to enlarge Street artist Brandon Odums and his artwork. - PHOTO BY BRANDON XUEREB
  • Photo by Brandon Xuereb
  • Street artist Brandon Odums and his artwork.

  Ballen says neighborhood organizations have the right to pay private companies to have the artwork removed — but that doesn't mean that they should.

  "It's one thing to paint over some boring tags where someone has just painted their name, but many of the more serious artists will never paint on occupied private property, so I think it is a waste to cover a beautiful mural on an abandoned building with ugly gray paint," Ballen says. "If they would prefer to spend their money making their neighborhood gray instead of vibrant, that's up to them."

  The Mid-City Security District is one of the latest organizations to hire Operation Clean Sweep to remove graffiti from public places. Operation Clean Sweep is owned and operated by Fred Radtke, a man who's earned the nickname "The Gray Ghost" for his use of gray primer. Radtke said he cleans street art so quickly, it's as if a ghost visited the site.

  Radtke himself is a polarizing character, equally heralded and scorned by New Orleans residents. In 2008, celebrated United Kingdom artist, activist and director Banksy "declared war" on Radtke, and as an artistic statement painted murals over large sections of The Gray Ghost's primer patches and even made Radtke the subject of some of his artwork.

  Banksy's artwork reportedly increased the value of homes on which it appeared, but most were painted over. In late June, Radtke called Banksy's artwork "useless" for New Orleans.

  "If he was a true artist that believed in art, he would have left something here for people in New Orleans because we were still devastated," Radtke says. "He didn't leave money or auction something off or anything."

  Radtke didn't just ruffle Banksy's feathers. Although The Gray Ghost says he only eliminates graffiti with the permission of property owners, he has been accused in court of trespassing to paint over artwork.

  In 2009, New Orleans Municipal Court Judge Paul Sens ordered him to cease covering graffiti without permission after Radtke pleaded no contest to criminal trespassing. Radtke allegedly was eradicating a mural on the corner of Press and Burgundy streets in the Bywater after the owner had allowed it to be painted.

  Now Radtke says the gray primer is just a deterrent for other graffiti artists. He matches sites with colored paint, and says he uses the latest technology to restore, when he can be sure that the spot will remain "clean" from graffiti.

  For Radtke, removing graffiti is a way to protect the city's art, not destroy it. He says New Orleans' most precious art has been about 300 years in the making, in the form of the city's iconic Spanish and French architecture. Since starting 12 years ago, Radtke says he's removed more than 22,000 instances of graffiti, some from historic sites.

  "There are things here that separate us from the jungle and into civilization, and that's what it's about," Radtke says.

  Radtke says that the No. 1 inhibitor of tourism is the perception of crime, which is perpetuated by graffiti.

  Jim Olsen, chairman of the Mid-City Security District, adds that graffiti supports the broken window theory, or the idea that one broken window paves the way for more vandalism. Olsen admits that some graffiti "looks kind of cool," but that it doesn't fit in with a residential neighborhood where people "feel safe and secure."

   "It just generally degrades the pro- perty," Olsen says.

  But artist Brandon Odums, also known as B-mike, dismisses the broken windows theory, especially as it pertains to street art. Odums was made famous for his murals in the Florida public housing complex in Bywater called "Project Be." According to Odums, street art is an important way for some New Orleanians to communicate a message.

  "I'm frustrated with the idea of amassing graffiti to gang activity or other mischief in terms of the participants," Odums says.

  Odums' spray paintings in Project Be depict heroes of the civil rights movement, including Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin, Malcom X and Muhammad Ali. The murals were illegally painted in the abandoned complex, which has been closed since Hurricane Katrina.

  "Some artists see blight or something else and see that there's a conversation that needs to be had about what's going on with the space," Odums says. "I noticed after Katrina so much blight and physical signs of indifference in communities, and I had the responsibility as an artist to use my art to transform the space."

  Odums was disappointed when access to those murals was cut off but is now working on a similar project, which is a secret for now. The difference is, the owner of the property discovered Odums' work and hopes to turn it into a public exhibition.

  Having an owner's permission — but not necessarily a city permit — is one way to compromise, according to Devin De Wulf, who describes himself as a folk artist.

  "I guess I would say there's a fine line between graffiti and art. It's subjective," De Wulf says, adding that some graffiti is just disrespectful. "And as an artist, I think it's really nice to work with the person who's the owner of the building."

  Odums says he often considers compromise, especially as paid advertising lines buildings to convey messages to the public, while graffiti is taken down.

  "Project Be got me thinking: What deserves to be on the public wall?" he says.

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