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Attempting to understand the aesthetics of graffiti and street art pieces

Urban dwellers pass by graffiti and street art every day without stopping to take notice, but during those rare moments when we have time and motivation it’s useful to examine the aesthetics of this type of urban art in our community or the places we travel to.

Short of asking the writer or artist to explain his or her thought process surrounding the design and placement decisions behind a tag (the most common type of graffiti), piece, throw-up, etc., (or series of them), there are multiple ways to understand this activity.

One way of dissecting graffiti pieces and street art, is by thinking about the lines, colors, shapes, symbols, icons, repetition, and use of shadows, etc. that its practitioners play with.

Initially I try to quickly categorize the work. I ask myself is the piece mainly graffiti or is it primarily street art (i.e., stickers, noncommercial posters, stencils, etc.)? Then again, sometimes the work is not categorizable or easily categorizable.

I then ask, how much effort went into the piece, and this often gives me an indication about whether or not it is simply a tag or throw up, or something else, etc.

I also look at where the piece is located, in particular what type of surface is the work located on? Is I placed on a door, a mail box, a light pole, and where on that object? It is at eye level, or at foot level, or high up forcing the observer to ask the all too familiar question how did they manage to place the piece in that location without risking injury or death? The piece of graffiti or street art may be found on a street with a lot of pedestrian or vehicular traffic, or it may be in a back alley. Each of which sets up a dynamic of possibilities presented to the writer or artist.

If the piece is a tag or bubble letter design, I look at the size and try to determine what type of element or tool (i.e., marker, aerosol spray paint, paint brush, or even etching solution) the writers used to make their mark on the surface. I look for something called hand style; this embodies where the tag starts, where it ends, are there drippings, and were these drippings intentional? Are they simply lines or are there dots too? If so how many? How fat or narrow are the lines, dots, and does the writing try to emulate any know type styles. How many tags or stickers, posters, or stencils (in the case of street art) are there in the neighborhood? Is it a basic color scheme, or is it the same tag or sticker with different colors. I look for various recognizable symbols and patterns like crowns and dots and where they are located in the overall design.

I try to figure out how old the piece is; is it recent or old? Is it being crowded out by other works of graffiti and street art? Is it about to be overtaken by other pieces. Has anyone tried to buff it, by either scrapping off, or painting over it. Does it rest upon other tags, or fresh paint by someone who covered over other pieces.

Another thing to consider is the color. Most tags in a neighborhood, by the same writer may be of a similar color, but again as pieces become more complicated there are often more colors and more intricate designs.

With more complicated pieces I try to ask if it embodies some verbal or iconic representation (i.e., who or what is it trying to represent). Is it a caricature, what aspects is the individual writers/artists characterizing, is it a saying is it a joke etc.?
Does it play off something that currently exists like a window, piping, venting, a protrusion, landscape, natural or otherwise.

If it is a more intense piece of graffiti (more work than a tag) or complicated or intricate piece of street art, did it involve the participation of others and how did they do it?

By forcing oneself to answer these kinds of questions, it may lead one to better appreciate the skill and risks that people take to engage in graffiti and street art. It may also enable us to more fully understand the numerous types of art, and our urban public spaces.

Photo credit: Aaron Yoo
Title: Microscope

Why most violent crime reductions plans don’t work and criteria for ones that do

Over the past thirty years many large municipalities and counties in the United States have experimented with violent crime reduction plans. These approaches have included, but are not limited to gun buyback programs, Weed and Seed, High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas, pulling levers, and numerous others. Some of them have been very well thought out, while others such as an emphasis on Stop and Frisk, have violated the constitutional rights of the citizens in the jurisdictions in which they were enacted.

Very few of these plans however, have led to their intended results.

A number of explanations can be advanced to explain why these violent crime reduction plans did not achieve their desired goals. Some of the reasons are more helpful than others.

To begin with, we might be quick to blame the lack of positive results on the poor training of law enforcement officers. This may explain some of the reasons why there were some initial missteps, but on the whole we can probably discount this idea.

In complimentary fashion, sometimes observers argue that there are not enough appropriate criminal justice practitioners (specifically law enforcement, prosecutors, probation officers, etc.) to properly do the job. Usually, however, it’s not because we don’t have sufficiently capable people to do the job properly. Resources can almost always be shifted around. It may be challenging but not impossible.

Sometimes violent crime reduction plans are criticized because they fail to consider the input from the communities that are most effected. In this day and age, few big city police departments or large county police departments make this kind of mistake. By the same token it must also be realized that the public sometimes has both unrealistic expectations of their law enforcement officers, and the strategies that they sometimes propose may be unconstitutional.

Another explanation is that the plans were not based on criminological theory, or on peer-reviewed criminal justice research, and were simply what some might call a preoccupation with a flavor of the day approach. In these cases, the mayor or county executive go to a conference, or somebody or some organization catches the ear of the city or county leadership, they hear about a violent crime reduction program that sounded promising (usually based on anecdotal evidence) in another jurisdiction that seems to be working, are appropriately persuaded (or smitten), and then suggest to the chief of police or head of public safety that it will work.

The two most important reasons, however, why violent crime reduction programs fail is because of the continuously changing leadership of the police department or the mayor, and the inflexibility of the plan. This is certainly the case with the city of Baltimore, where I work. Over the past two decades the city has had countless crime prevention plans, and approximately ten new commissioners of police. Shortly after the new well-meaning and intentioned police commissioner takes the job, they are suspended, resign or fired, and thus the plans that they were trying to implement are not given enough time to work before they are abandoned and something new is tried. This leads to decrease in morale among the rank and file and they approach each new crime fighting plan as one that will be soon abandoned. Thus for any new violent crime fighting approach that is going to be implemented, they need to sustain themselves past changing administrations.

In the case of inflexibility, police officers and commissioners must be given room to innovate in small doses. Crimes rates go up and down. Criminals come and go. They get arrested, go to jail or prison and some of them are released back into the community. Some of them become gainfully employed, while others get back in the game. Thus law enforcement needs to be flexible in order to adapt to changing circumstances. Thus stating that a crime reduction plan must work immediately or by one, two or three years’ time is unrealistic. We must give violent crime reduction plans time, we must continuously and systematically monitor their progress (preferably by outside experts), and quickly make appropriate adjustments when they do not appear to achieve their goals.

photo credit: Office of Public Affairs
title: VR12 Oakland – 48

Why most graduate school requirements do not adequately prepare doctoral students for the academic job market and what can be done about it?

Although I can’t really speak to the ability of doctoral education requirements to assist someone seeking a nonacademic job, most of what I was required to do in grad school, in order to earn my Ph.D., neither adequately prepared me to be a scholar, nor a professor.

Sure, I enrolled in and completed graduate seminars, submitted term papers, finished my written and oral exams, and wrote and defended a dissertation. I also served as a teaching assistant and helped the departmental secretaries register undergraduates each semester.

But I wasn’t really taught how to conduct scholarly research, teach a class, and engage in departmental, college, university and professional service. I had to learn these three pillars of a traditional academic career on my own, and primarily on the job.

I know I’m not unique. Now that I have been a full professor for some years, and having talked to numerous colleagues, I’m convinced that the graduate school requirements that most Canadian and American graduate students were subjected to were primarily poorly thought-out exercises, which graduate students had to do to leave the school with a Ph.D. in their hands.

Yet, there is still a widely held belief that the majority of tasks that graduate students are required to complete, somehow, perhaps by osmosis, helps them become scholars, instructors, or even service minded individuals.

There are probably four arguments that support the traditional practices: these methods are the only way we know how to best train graduate students to best prepare them for life beyond the protective shield of graduate school (aka we don’t have anything better to replace it); these practices were good enough for us and our contemporaries when we did our Ph.D., so you just have to buckle down, and grin and bear it too; and we are too busy, uncreative, etc. and thus we are going to continue to do as we’ve always done.

I would argue, on the other hand that, in general, the big four requirements (i.e., graduate seminars, term papers, comprehensive examinations, and writing dissertations) are a complete waste of time.

Graduate seminars, the ones that were in the catalogue, that appeared to interest me were rarely offered. And the ones that we were required to take or were available were mostly dull exercises. Few of the students who attended did the reading, and over time the instructors were about as bored of the process as the majority of students. I learned next to nothing. And what I was required to know, bore little resemblance to what I needed for my comprehensive examinations.

Sure, sometimes you can flip a term paper and after considerable revision submit it to a journal, hope that it will not incur a bench reject, and benefit from unbiased feedback, that allows you to dig deeper into your subject matter, and maybe even get the paper published.

Comprehensive exams were the ultimate garbage in garbage out process. It really doesn’t actually teach you how to read broadly in a way that is useful for your own future research and teaching. Despite focusing on three areas and learning the major literature in these fields, most of the jobs that I interviewed for asked me to teach subjects unrelated to this preparation.

Although I was able to successfully “publish out of my dissertation” and later get it published as a book, this does not always happen. Most people who complete the dissertation are by the end totally bored with the subject, only chose the subject for expediency sake, or the topic is too narrow to interest a book publisher.

Instead, we should seriously rethink our current model, subject the requirements, as some other graduate schools have, to empirical analysis, ditch or modify the ones that don’t produce the desired outcomes, and experiment with others.

Perhaps requiring our grad students to write grant proposals, get them funded, and then publish three or more articles in highly ranked peer review journals is better. (In fact, some places say three published articles – or documentation from editors indicating that the papers have been accepted for publication- equals a dissertation or something like that). After all, you need to do those things if you want to have any chance at a dwindling academic market that is hyper-competitive.

Hopefully this approach will minimize the hazing aspects of graduate education and have candidates better suited to a life as a scholar and professor.

Photo credit: Keith Lam
Graduation Ceremony