Graffiti in Isla Vista is a controversial topic. While conservative views see this “art” on concrete as unsightly public defacement, many see I.V. art as aesthetically pleasing. In the right time, at the right place, graffiti is beautiful. I am not the only one who thinks so – a UCSB professor agrees.
Every time I walk into UCSB’s Davidson Library, I notice the displayed photography of the graffiti located at I.V.’s Devereux Beach. The other day I began to pay closer attention to these works of art. Come to find out, Michael Arntz, a retired professor who dedicated 40 years to teaching at UCSB’s art studio department, has spent years capturing the vibrancy of graffiti in I.V. More than 10 years ago, Arntz held an exhibition in Davidson Library featuring photography of natural landscapes and graffiti. Shortly after, the library’s staff asked Arntz if he would keep his photography in the facility permanently. His artwork has been Davidson decor ever since.
As you walk down the ramp to the right on the first floor of Davidson, there are four frames on the wall, all photos of the infamous abandoned building on Devereux Beach. One photo stands out in particular. In the photo, there is no distinct image; instead it is a blur of bold colors. The photograph also shows paint cans strewn about the dirt floor of the structure. It is close up, raw, and a detailed image of layers and layers of painting.
In an interview, Arntz explained that some artists will spend anywhere from $500 to $600 dollars in spray paint for a single masterpiece. “I don’t know how they create such beautiful work with spray cans,” Arntz said. “It’s incredible.”
Not everyone is so impressed with these spray paint-born works of art, however. Last December, the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors passed a graffiti ordinance to work with the Isla Vista Park and Recreation District’s Adopt-a-Block program. The ordinance offers Isla Vista property owners the option of either removing the graffiti themselves or allowing the county to remove the graffiti at no cost. If a property owner chooses the first option, he or she will be allowed 10 days to remove the graffiti, after which time $100 is charged each day the graffiti remains. The California budget crisis has limited the power for authorities to enforce anti-graffiti laws. So while there is legal action, graffiti still rages rampant throughout I.V.
Thanks to Arntz and others who see the art behind graffiti, there are a few places where this art is actually legal. About eight years ago, two students were arrested for putting graffiti on the Devereux site. Distraught, Arntz fought for legalizing graffiti in this location, telling law enforcement, “If you prosecute these two, then I will come and speak on their behalf.” Arntz’s fervency and collection of photography convinced the jury to acquit the accused from all charges, ultimately legalizing graffiti art in this area.
Just this year, real estate agency St. George and Associates dedicated an entire house to student art. The house is located at 6598 Del Playa Drive and exudes Isla Vista culture with murals and sketches. The idea began when company owner Ed St. George asked some previous tenants at a separate location if they would paint something on their doors. St. George provided paint and was thrilled with the results. Three out of the eight units who were offered paint participated and despite the lack of artistic background, tenants were able to create unbelievable artwork. Since then, St. George and his associate Terry Bailey have collaborated and came up with the idea of the 6598 Del Playa property. “The graffiti in Isla Vista is absolutely, unbelievably horrible,” Bailey remarked. So, instead of focusing on the negativity, Bailey hopes that house will celebrate student talent and bring back fond memories for future UCSB alumni and past residents. “It is such a unique community,” Bailey said. “There has been such negativity but there are a lot of gifted artists”.
When I first saw the house, the bright neon orange at the front of Del Playa was most noticeable. The painting of a white skeleton riding a wave was done by a UCSB freshman. Dark blues, reds, and greens bled down the left side of the house, adding a stark contrast to the neons. The artwork is done by a collaboration of students who have chosen what speaks most to them about Isla Vista culture. Whether it is paintings of beaches, skeletons, trees, animals, or surfboards, this hodgepodge of artwork reflects what college students believe represents I.V.
The house murals should be completed by this coming fall. “Hopefully this will be a very positive thing : Students already have responded really well to it,” Bailey proudly stated. When I asked a resident what he thought of the designs, he said, “There are some that I really like and others that I just don’t understand.” But isn’t that the point of art?
The other day I was walking down the Sabado Tarde Road and saw a huge painting on a fence that read “All You Need Is Love.” The phrase, coined by the Beatles’ famous song, made me smile. A pretty expression with a positive message behind it, this art was anything but an eyesore to me. In fact, when the drudgery of I.V. life gets me down, I appreciate seeing something bright and cheery. If an artist considers a phrase important enough to want to share it with others and spend hours painting it, how could anyone call that work vandalism?
When I studied abroad in Paris, France, I’ll never forget visiting the Centre Pompidou. Priceless art adorned the walls – some that I didn’t notice, some that I thought were absolutely hideous, and others that I could stare at for days. Graffiti in I.V. is similar to a modern art museum. The beauty in every “tag” lies in the eye of the beholder.
“When we were in France, what really intrigued me was the affect war has on culture,” commented Arntz on his latest trip to Europe. He states that artists scaled five- to 10-story buildings, risking their lives to paint and express themselves. “There is passion there that is really amazing – that people will commit themselves so much to danger,” Arntz said. He hopes to share all the WWI pictures that he took while he was abroad, in addition to other anti-war artwork in California – I.V. in particular.
Graffiti represents culture and a new wave of art. The PBS documentary, entitled Style Wars, describes movement and culture that came with the 1982 graffiti expression in New York City. “The new expressions of a new young subculture is called hip hop. Graffiti is the written word, rap music is the spoken word, and then there’s acrobatic body language which is called break dancing,” one of the reporters states in the documentary.
Britton Campanelli, a student from Long Beach who frequently visits I.V., also spoke about graffiti in an artist’s context. “What a lot of people don’t realize about graffiti is that after it was on the streets and people started hating it, studios started getting graffiti artists to paint on canvases and it was the creation of a whole new type of art: the newest cultural impact since Andy Warhol and the pop art movement,” he conjectured.
I’m not suggesting that graffiti should be a welcomed artistic expression everywhere. But, whether art is expressed on a canvas hung in the Louvre, or with spray paint on concrete, it’s the artist’s talent, heart, and soul that come together to create beauty. Isla Vista residents, I dare you to challenge your traditional ideas of beauty and find something in our town by the sea that inspires you.