When the four pillars of hip hop were established in the 1970s in the Bronx, graffiti was all about glory. Youth in rebellion against society and the law would run wild in the night streets, spraying their name up wherever people were likely to see it. In Ann Arbor, the art takes on a decidedly different slant. While a few locals still take pride in tagging, much of Ann Arbor’s graffiti is about sending a message and improving the neighborhood.

Local graffiti artist Paolo Carone, an LSA senior, mostly uses stencils to create political messages and purposefully places them where they will be most appreciated.

“When I do stencils, it’s like a statement because it’s something you can read and it’s short … something you can get the gist of,” Carone said. “It’s like, ‘Yes I think this is unfair and I hope by reading this you at least consider that it’s unfair too, or you consider that it’s terrible that this is being ignored.’ ”

One of his favorite lines to use is “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” taken from T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Carone has this five-foot tall stencil on a number of abandoned buildings in Detroit, including a record store he liked that was being torn down, he said.

The dust in the poem represents a lifeless substance with no further meaning, Carone explained, like the rubble of the demolished record store.

“It’s specifically that there weren’t efforts to save these buildings or clean them up or anything, they were just efforts to get rid of it and turn it into a parking lot or just another bank,” he said. “There was no effort for an actual expressive use of this building.”

It’s the artists who can bring this expression to life with their craft. Ellen Rutt, a junior in the school of Art & Design, painted a mural on the wall of University Towers apartment building on South University Avenue that used to face the old Pinball Pete’s arcade building, which burned down nearly a year ago.

“Once they painted over the wall (after Pinball Pete’s burned down) it seemed like a really perfect opportunity to take advantage of this space that no one was doing anything with,” said Rutt, who lived in University Towers at the time.

The mural, called “The Garden,” features surreal flowers painted with various vibrant reds, blues and greens and was completed this past summer. Rutt painted her name and contact information next to the mural. She had no need to hide her identity, as she gained approval from the property manager of University Towers beforehand.

“(The property manager) had me fill out some sort of proposal and present an idea to her … just to make sure it wasn’t gang affiliated or really racist,” Rutt said. “While I was making it, people would come up and talk to me about it, ask me what I was doing and why I was doing it. I had quite a few officers approach me.”

Graffiti has long been criminalized as an act of vandalism and defacement of property. Ann Arbor law penalizes graffiti offenses with restitution, community service and a fine of up to $500. In addition, the graffitied business can pursue civil litigation. For this reason, many local graffiti artists wouldn’t consent to being interviewed for this story. Rutt said she knows people who engage in illicit tagging in Ann Arbor.

“People do tons of stuff on North Campus but it’s not nearly as public as doing it on Central Campus,” Rutt said. “There’s a very distinct group of people who travel around North Campus.”

Carone attributes the act of tagging to graffiti’s urban roots, where tags would represent territories that belonged to certain gangs.

“There is still that mid-’90s mentality of … someone towering over a certain area or being the king of something,” Carone said. “I’m not a really big fan of that way of thinking but it’s really integral — it’s like street advertising, like putting your band’s flier up. It’s for a method of art that came from a street mentality, and is at its best a street mentality.”

Rutt didn’t have such motivations. Rather, Rutt hopes to revive an area marred by destruction and perhaps even extend her painted “Garden” beyond the wall.

“In addition to having it be a mural I think that space has potential for being an urban garden,” Rutt said, adding that she’s in talks with the student group Cultivating Community about creating “a community space for both art and collaboration for environmental reasons.”

Eventually, Rutt is open to different murals being displayed on her newfound space, making the wall a consistently changing movement of rebirth after the damage caused by the fire.

“I want to see what the possibility is of painting over that wall every year and having either myself or someone do a mural every year,” Rutt said. “So it will be annual and something like this will exist for a temporary period of time.”

Both Rutt and Carone agree that street art has a distinct advantage over the traditional act of painting on a canvas, transcending closed walls and reaching a broader and unsuspecting audience.

“It’s one thing to do an image on a canvas where it’s presented in a gallery or in an art setting, but that attracts a certain type of person,” Rutt explained. “Public art can be seen by everyone … it’s universally accepted or rejected, in some ways. So that has to be taken into consideration when choosing images that you want to portray.”

It’s that idea — that graffiti is best when it serves a community purpose or sends an important message — that makes Carone so disdainful of Graffiti Alley, probably Ann Arbor’s most popular spot for graffiti artists and viewers.

Beyond the middle-aged man dressed head to toe in King of Pop apparel as he swings and sings through a rendition of “Thriller,” Graffiti Alley is, like it or not, quite a spectacle. It’s a veritable labyrinth of graffiti, strewn with Beatles lyrics, ancient spray-painted pieces of gum and even a violated Barbie doll strapped to a pole.

“I don’t like the painted alley, because there used to be a mural there and it was beautiful,” Carone said. “Now it’s been painted over and it’s just a mess — it’s chaos.

“That thing is so just part of Ann Arbor that when you do anything around here, no one takes it seriously,” he added. “There’s a blend of all sorts of ideas and good ideas are covered up by pointless ones.”

For Carone, a good idea is not necessarily one that sends the right message, but one that’s provocative enough to incite a strong reaction, whether it’s positive or negative, political or personal.

“If it makes people think, if all they have to do is walk past it and think, it makes the area a better place.”

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