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Gerald Ford graffiti resurfaces for ArtPrize

Another Gerald Ford graffiti piece appeared on the side of The B.O.B. last month as an entry for ArtPrize.
"Vandalism" on the side of The B.O.B.

"Vandalism" on the side of The B.O.B. /Laurel Green

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Grand Rapids’ resident Ford-promoting graffiti artist has emerged once again, but this time the art is sanctioned and is being protected as an ArtPrize entry. “Vandalism” is positioned on the side of The B.O.B. that faces Fulton Street, and depicts a beaming and waving Gerald and Betty Ford, seemingly greeting the cars and pedestrians making their way up and down Fulton.

The artist, who is entered in the ArtPrize competition under the name “Unknown Graffiti Artist,” began generating publicity for his depictions of Ford last spring, as pieces began popping up throughout Grand Rapids. Although the public response to the art was largely positive, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) held to their stated policies and insisted the pieces would eventually be removed. This is also in keeping with the City of Grand Rapids’ position that unsanctioned graffiti is not welcome within the city because it could lead to more graffiti.

The context of “Vandalism” as an ArtPrize entry separates it from the artist’s previous pieces, and instead just becomes an addition to the various forms of artistic expression within the competition this year. Graffiti is simply added to a much longer list of the possible manifestations public art can take. Because this form is generally illegal in most of its appearances, there is a greater potential for broader discussions to occur within the community about the nature of graffiti, sanctioned or not, as art.

When asked, not one interviewee said they were opposed to “Vandalism” as an ArtPrize entry. Many also expressed pleasure at the piece’s location, and at the notion of Ford being represented within Grand Rapids in a more public sense. For many of them the graffiti instilled a source of pride in Grand Rapids as a city, and in what the city has to offer.

“Yeah, it’s a graffiti, but it’s a tastefully done graffiti,” says Mary Jo Anderson of Kalamazoo. “I mean, when you think of Grand Rapids you think of Gerald R. Ford. He’s part of Michigan and the Grand Rapids history. I don’t find it offensive at all. I find it very amusing that people objected to it [when it was appearing before] because it was very tastefully done.”

“I think it’s outstanding. I think tastefully done graffiti has its place and I think it’s appropriate that the two of them are on the side of this building,” adds Deb Scholton. “I think it’s all about timing. I think that his other stuff that he’s done is really good too. I think this has its place. It’s good he did that.”

It is worth mentioning that because this artist’s identity remains unknown in all aspects, any assumptions pertaining to gender have been made by the interviewees personally. In every comment in which there was an assumption of gender, the assumption was that the artist is male. The street art/graffiti culture has historically been a very male dominated subculture, but that is not to say there are not successful female street artists as well. It is also likely that the gender of this particular artist will continue to remain ambiguous.

Other comments focused more on the nature of graffiti as a whole, rather than the piece itself.

“I like that he’s an out-of-the-box kind of artist,” says Pam Harris. “I don’t mind that it’s graffiti. I think it’s fascinating that if he has to reveal himself he’ll have to do some community service. If he’s gonna’ own up to it then he’ll have to own up to having broken the law.”

“You have to get permission from someone if you’re going to deface someone’s property,” says Bonnie Hagen on graffiti as a practice. “[But] as long as it’s a positive thing.”

“It’s hard to have strong feelings about what appears to be a stencilled image of Gerald R. Ford and his wife,” responds Spencer Weir. “I think in terms of art it’s great that we might talk about it as more than just the image itself. The fact that it’s titled “Vandalism” is very clever in bringing it back around. As someone who heard about the controversy and didn’t care that much about graffiti I don’t feel very strongly about a piece that highlights graffiti. I’m glad it is there, and I think it is commendable of the owner of The B.O.B. to embrace this spray painting, regardless of what else has happened.”

As a result of “Vandalism” being submitted as an ArtPrize entry, this artist’s work has now appeared within two different realms of public art in Grand Rapids. In terms of public opinion the work has been well-received in both of its contexts, and as a sanctioned piece participating in ArtPrize the city of Grand Rapids can no more object to “Vandalism” than they can a piece hanging on the walls of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The piece’s subject matter is certainly not an unfamiliar sight in this year’s competition, but one might argue that it is one of the more skilled representations of President Ford that has been seen this year. Meanwhile this piece’s unique medium and execution have the added potential to reboot the dialogue that began within the community last spring, and bring graffiti to the forefront of our discussions about art in this city.

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