The Graffiti Defense Coalition Finds Beauty in the Bending of Rules

And this summer Justin Hart’s organization is commissioning four public murals in Capitol Hill.

By Matthew Halverson April 17, 2013 Published in the May 2013 issue of Seattle Met

Legally speaking, graffiti is vandalism. But when the alternative is one gray block after another, can’t vandalism be beautiful? Justin Hart believes it can. The Ballard native—who for more than a decade has plastered walls, parking meters, and bike racks with his art stickers that you’d recognize but, for the sake of maintaining some mystery, he’d rather not describe—founded the Graffiti Defense Coalition in 2011 as the City of Seattle was renewing efforts to squelch guerrilla art. This summer the loose collective of street artists is commissioning four public murals in Capitol Hill for a project it calls Stunning Seattle. And it has the blessing of (and funding from) the city. Because some rules were made to be painted over


I went to Spain in the early part of 2000, and I saw things that changed my life. I saw stencil work and wheat paste work and aerosol work. I saw whole apartment buildings painted with these larger-than-life murals. I saw photorealistic faces spray painted with aerosol. It blew me away and made me realize how much I really love art and how much more stimulated I am by seeing it in that context. I had just gone all over Europe and seen all of the best art in the best museums—according to the world of art—and this was the thing that stuck with me. 

I came back to Seattle and saw the city as a big blank canvas, a giant opportunity to express myself. And I felt a little intimidated by that. I didn’t know exactly what to do or which limits to push or what I felt was right and wrong.

The first time I saw one of my stickers that I knew I hadn’t put up—I must have given it to someone else who put it up—or the first time I saw a sticker that I’d forgotten about but was still there two years later, it was inspiring. Before that it was more of an experiment. But when I started getting that feedback it really put into concrete that even if I don’t understand my motivation for doing this—this compulsion to make these stickers and put them places and give them out and try to get them out in the world—I don’t need that okay from myself or that answer to keep doing it.  

We don’t call our group Street Art Defense Coalition because street art as a style, street art as a business practice, street art aesthetically doesn’t need a defense. It’s considered art. It’s considered commerce. It’s considered the avant-garde or forefront of style in a lot of people’s minds. It’s accepted. But people get this chill up their back when you talk about graffiti. 

There comes a time when vandalism gets in the way of progress and functionality. If there’s so much graffiti on a stop sign that you can’t tell it’s a stop sign and run through it, that’s a hazard. But what about the backs of our stop signs? There’s nothing functional about the back of a stop sign—unless you put it to use as a public art canvas.

Maybe street art is rebellious, but maybe it’s also really beautiful. Maybe it’s just some paint on some walls. 

What came first, the chicken or the egg? Was it certain forces within the community condemning graffiti, calling it a rebellious activity, that instilled this rebellious nature in people? Or is it human nature to be rebellious? 

Spray paint is a finicky beast, so people are almost superstitious about what they use. And there’s a lot to be said for the spray tips. For each kind of paint, there are certain tips that work and certain tips that don’t. And knowing that is kind of half the battle. Knowing what tip you want for what kind of line for what kind of application, there’s a lot of skill in that. People spend decades just figuring that out. 

A lot of people look at graffiti and the simple tags and they say, “That doesn’t look like there’s a lot of effort put into it.” But if you study it, after a while you start to see confidence in the line style, in the actual application on the wall, the thickness of the line, the fluidity of the stroke.

If you practice all the time at anything, it shows. The guy that’s really good at three-point shots, that guy plays basketball all the time. It takes involving yourself wholly in something to experience growth that’s balanced. My point is that the only way you can get to that point in aerosol is constant practice. You have to spray paint out of a can onto a wall. And most people can’t build their own wall to practice on.  

There are endless stretches of what we would call canvas—large, available walls—like under elevated freeways. And we believe that there are a lot of benefits to allowing people to express themselves on that canvas. 

I used to get this dreamy, tingly feeling when I saw a blank wall, like, Oh, wow, wouldn’t it be so cool if someone could get permission to paint that entire wall? Then I actually started seeing murals like that in other cities and something clicked. I realized this is possible. This is not only within reach, but it’s practical, it’s cool, it’s the right thing to do. So after that epiphany, I started to see the opportunity in walls. Instead of feeling this vague sense of I wish, I hope, it was like, I can, I will, I’m going to.

Really all you need is spray paint and a wall.


Published: May 2013

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