gray ghost

30 10 2008

If you don’t live in New Orleans, you probably haven’t heard of the ominously-titled “Gray Ghost” — the “city-serving” force who has been covering up graffiti on everything from synagogues to schools to skyscrapers around the city with gray paint without consequence. Really, the Gray Ghost is not just one man, but several who operate under the direction of anti-graffiti activist Fred Radtke to smother all sprayed-on masterpieces with blocky, gray paint.

The first time I heard of the Gray Ghost, he was making headlines by covering up works by the famous British grafitti artist Banksy, who hit up New Orleans around the third anniversary of Katrina. Banksy, it turns out, visited the dirty coast in part to contest The Gray Ghost, of whom he’d heard Atlantic-stretching rumors:

“I came to New Orleans to do battle with the Gray Ghost, a notorious vigilante who’s been systematically painting over any graffiti he can find with the same shade of grey paint since 1997. Consequently he’s done more damage to the culture of the city than any section five hurricane could ever hope to achieve.”

A work by Banksy targeting Radtke

Banksy’s creations, by the way, were often worth more than the dilapitated buildings he scrawled them on. But whether he had knowledge of the war waged against him or not, graffiti is graffiti, and within days the Gray Ghost had unceremoniously dethrowned Banksy, to the chagrin of art-lovers across the city.

But this week the Gray Ghost finally went too far, when two men (including Radtke) painted over a beautiful, enormous graffiti-inspired wall mural created just a few days prior, commissioned by the wall’s owner. And finally, the man who spent the last several years committing a “public service” by masking colorful tags across New Orleans was put behind bars.

Radtke faces 90 days in jail, or a $500 fine, which is really nothing. And still, anti-graffiti activists are livid.

Mostly, it’s agreed that no one wants gang-related graffiti around. Mostly, people support the NOPD’s blind eye to the anti-graffiti activists who make their statement in covering up others’. Obviously, tagging is illegal. We don’t like it when other people deface our property, or property that belongs to the city.

I am not a student of this school of thought.

Regardless of your opinion on graffiti, I have to ask: how is gray paint any better? Gray paint doesn’t fix anything. It doesn’t make property look any better, and it doesn’t end the gang activity it attempts to cover up. Really, the gray paint is perfectly symbolic of what this city tries to do too often: haphazardly cover up problems that are too big to eliminate in one fell swoop.

I don’t understand why you would spend time and energy being an anti-graffiti activist when there are so many things worth fighting for here.

So I’m glad the police finally did something about Radtke. Art comes in too many shapes and forms to ever be obvious, and we can’t treat all graffiti like it is the same. Some say that there are street art is among the greatest art of our time, and I’m among them.

Children are bringing guns to school; people are waiting hours for food stamps; the murder rate in New Orleans is the highest per capita in the country. For all the intensely beautiful and unique things this city offers, there are corners here that are so dark we don’t even dare talk about them. Gray paint is not a civil service; it’s a waste of time, and what’s more, it masks some of the most muffled voices from a city crying out.

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