ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
And I'm Michele Norris. We've heard about crackdowns on graffiti and on the people who create graffiti. Now to a new store that caters to graffiti artists. Less than a month after opening its doors, Alphabeta in Brooklyn is already facing criticism. NPR's Margot Adler reports on Alphabeta's opponents and how the store is trying to stay on the right side of the law.
MARGOT ADLER: Graffiti is unwelcome in many communities, but it has a long history. There's evidence of graffiti in ancient Greece and Rome. And what were those cave paintings, anyway? Charlie Halsey is a co-founder of the graffiti art store and gallery Alphabeta.
Mr. CHARLIE HALSEY (Co-Founder, Alphabeta): I guess it's a primal instinct, really. Who knows why people, you know, write on the wall or, you know, where that instinct comes from? I think it's, as far as I know, it's been - being done since the dawn of mankind.
ADLER: The store has only been open three weeks. It doesn't have a phone number or a Web site. But you can find it mentioned on blogs. The store itself is a single, airy room on Greenpoint Avenue in Brooklyn, with locked metal cages to hold the aerosol cans.
Mr. HALSEY: That is part of the fire code. To display spray paint in a store, you need to have it locked in a metal cage. Any combustible materials need to be locked in a metal cage.
ADLER: There are racks of t-shirts for sale and hats covered with aerosol art and all kinds of deadstock sneakers from the '80s and '90s that were popular with hip-hop culture and graffiti artists. And outside is a large art space with two lovely murals on the wall. But already, the shop has come under fire from Councilman Peter Vallone, for whom the eradication of graffiti is a personal mission.
Councilman PETER VALLONE (City Council, New York City): We're not naive. This store was not established to cater to legal graffiti art, because there's just not enough of that to turn a profit anywhere. Don't fall for this graffiti as art thing. You know, 85 percent of graffiti is just tags - nothing anyone would look at and say remotely artistic. Another 10 percent is gang communication. This is our neighborhood. This is our meeting place. Then there's a small percentage that you or I would look at and say, hey, if this kid were pointed in the right direction, he might have some talent.
ADLER: Councilman Vallone came of age in the 1970's, when graffiti became associated with New York's rising crime rate and the deterioration of neighborhoods. So he sees it as a gateway crime that sends a message to criminals that lawlessness is tolerated. Yet, graffiti has always had a double edge - the etched-in, destroyed window on the one hand, and on the other, the stunning city mural or subway car that fueled a cultural awakening. Andrew Michael Ford is the director of the Ad Hoc Art Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn which is devoted to art that is often marginalized by the New York art scene: street art, pop surrealism, tattoo art. He says when the Tate Modern in London has graffiti artists painting the building, you know street art has come of age.
Mr. ANDREW MICHAEL FORD (Director, Ad Hoc Art Gallery): If they're doing it, I think it's just like the beginning. I think it just sent a wave around the world where it's like, it's pretty much legitimate, relevant, on the map, and people need to pay attention to it. And you're going to see it on all the museums really soon, and we're just glad to be a part of it.
ADLER: Charlie Halsey, the co-founder of Alphabeta, says both views have some truth to them. He's seen almost a dozen graffiti supply stores in New York open only to crash and burn - badly managed, flouting the laws. That's why he says Alphabeta will be as much a gallery and event space as a store. In three weeks, they've already had five events. When I arrive at a party sponsored by Overspray, an international graffiti art magazine, I find eight Austrian artists painting murals on three of the walls. They're all part of an exhibit by the Inoperable Gallery in Vienna. The gallery was founded by a 24-year-old American named Nicholas Platzer, who says he once was an illegal graffiti writer who got arrested when he was a teen.
Mr. NICHOLAS PLATZER (Founder, Inoperable Gallery): My mom would have heart attacks when she'd get the 4:00 o'clock phone calls and stuff like that. And I sort of decided to go legal and promote the other artists.
ADLER: His mom was there, looking proudly on. A German artist who goes by the single name Franke stops painting a mural for a moment to say he's just having fun. The real graffiti artists, he says, are in dictatorships, where writing on a wall is a courageous act.
FRANKE (Graffiti Artist): So what I do now is like child's play. But a real graffiti artist risks a lot to make people think.
ADLER: As I looked at his mural forming and the other two murals that are painted that day, I realized the two lovely murals I saw here two days ago have vanished - painted over, gone into the ether, like some Tibetan fan painting.
Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.
NORRIS: And you can see pictures of those murals at Alphabeta on our Web site. That's at npr.org.
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