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Street fighters

Tulsa artists on the state of street art, the rules of engagement, and the line between good and evil

Photo by Jeremy Charles

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As downtown Tulsa booms, a mosaic of brick wall, concrete overpass and looming streetlights calls to those with spray cans, paint brushes, and stage props, even knitting needles. Some might say what’s not marked yet is so much blank canvas, bidding artists to come near.

Painters, chalk artists, street-theater troupes, musicians, yarn bombers, and even rogue city planners are claiming these spaces as part of an effort to bring street art—that embattled term, in all its definitions—out of the shadows and out into the open, where it can be cultivated and celebrated as public art, social commentary, a record of our city now.

Mary Beth Babcock is one of the downtown business owners devoted to bringing more street art to Tulsa. The Dwelling Spaces owner helped bring artists and business owners together in the Blue Dome District, and now she’s poised to step outside her stomping ground with a new project, called Public Works. It’s a joint effort with Aaron Whisner, the local muralist behind the Woody Guthrie Center mural.

“This is going to be throughout Oklahoma, could be in another state if the opportunity came up,” Babcock said.

“For me, public art, it’s community engagement. The one on the back of my building tells a story—Route 66, Greenwood. The more you look, the more you can learn things,” Babcock said.

By ordinance, the City of Tulsa devotes one percent of the construction cost of public buildings valued in excess of $500,000 for art. The city’s most-recently touted work is a sculpture for the new Charles L. Hardt Operations Maintenance and Engineering Center, which will house a division of the Streets and Stormwater Department—the same department that deploys a graffiti crew as part of what City Hall touts as “a strict policy of condemning graffiti.” Utah artist Patrick Sullivan will even create the work in public, at Guthrie Green over the course of three to four weeks, weather permitting.

In fiscal year 2012-2013, two crews covered 230,000 square feet of what they determined to be illegal graffiti, according to the Streets and Stormwater Department’s Tim McCorkell. In April, McCorkell said a single crew covered 68,128 square feet just this year. The city spends nearly $200,000 annually on covering graffiti, he said.

According to city ordinance, it’s an offense to maliciously or willfully deface any City of Tulsa property; however, the ordinance is rarely enforced. A city prosecutor said he doesn’t believe Tulsa has prosecuted anyone under our graffiti ordinance in the past couple of years or more in municipal court, according to City spokesperson Bob Bledsoe. The ordinance would allow for fines up to $200, plus court costs.

As of now, there are no plans to establish approved graffiti zones, McCorkell said. “If you have a public wall, you have issues where it spreads from that area,” he said. “We don’t want to encourage it in any way because we consider it a public nuisance.”

The lines between street art and graffiti are not always black and white, and whether or not the artists have permission isn’t always the sticking point. Here, some artists interviewed by The Tulsa Voice talk about art in our public places as part of an exploration of the oh-so-colorful gray area where art and graffiti— and the public and private—mix.