To see a slideshow of Jesse Graves’ artwork, visit the Utne blogs.
The graffiti that covers the walls and walkways of just about every major city is often destructive, frequently abrasive, sometimes beautiful, and always illegal. As a result, no matter how powerful or righteous its purpose, its merit is often overshadowed by debates about the art form itself.
The mud stencils of Milwaukee artist Jesse Graves, featured on the pages of In These Times (Aug. 2009), duck the ethics debate altogether. There are no laws against playing in the dirt, the messages are no less powerful than those from a can of paint, and if the neighbors don’t like it—well, they can just apply water. The technique is also nontoxic, an eco-advantage those hauling aerosol cans down alleys or atop buildings can’t claim.
Graves traveled to Chicago in June to join activists campaigning to close the Tamms Correctional Center, a supermax prison in Illinois infamous for being both cruel and unusual. Thirty volunteers working in small groups emptied buckets of mud onto large Mylar stencils all over a graffiti-weary city where spray paint was removed from retail shelves years ago. Stenciling in broad daylight—not in the shadows—changed everything. The groups drew onlookers, including friends and family members of prisoners at the Tamms facility, but no police. It was the first time Graves used his art to deliver a message that wasn’t strictly environmental, but the creative process, which he describes on his website (www.mudstencils.com) was no less conscientious: “design, cut, get mud, post, enjoy.”