Ron Kramer speaks to Julianne Evans.
Splashing a dark alley with colour, turning a blank wall into a talking point; street art is everywhere when you start looking for it.
And Ron Kramer does a lot of looking, and painting.
A senior lecturer in criminology and sociology at the University of Auckland where he’s on a fast-rising career trajectory, he has an unconventional weekend side-line in commissioned graffiti, writing under a pseudonym or “moniker”.
His work – colourful, confident abstract versions of interconnected 3D letters and shapes, overlaid with trademark features like oversized drops of water – decorates public and private space around Auckland and elsewhere.
Australian-born, Ron spent some of his teenage years on the illegal side of the fence, “bombing” the insides of Melbourne trains and working at speed to get his piece done before the police turned up.
A risky business, as in those days Melbourne had a dedicated graffiti squad.
It doesn’t sound like the kind of evening hobby parents would approve of. “Not really no; they didn’t know about it until a policeman knocked at the door one night.”
Parental and police disapproval aside, he says the main thing he felt about getting caught was frustrated that he didn’t get to finish the piece.
He became interested in graffiti in 1989, aged 11, and some of the skills he learnt on the job have been transferable to academia.
“Writing graffiti is a creative process you can compare with a piece of academic writing, in that it has composition, style and involves planning towards a cohesive whole. You’re working fast and under pressure and it pays not to have a fixed mind set.”
The art form has also been central to his research interests.
The son of working class Croatian immigrants, he was the second in his family to go to university. Completing his PhD on the rise of legal graffiti in New York city at Yale in New Haven (where he was based from 2005-2012), he has focused on how power imbalances impact society’s thinking about crime and deviance, and how they shape everyday practices within criminal justice systems.
At Auckland, he teaches critical and cultural criminology, subcultures, criminalisation and street art, and he’s just published a book; The Rise of Legal Graffiti Writing in New York and Beyond, an expansion of his doctoral dissertation.
“I was interested in how and why legal graffiti now exists and the policies that repressed subway graffiti in New York. It was kept out of trains and train yards and that eventually led to a lot of graffiti writers asking for permission, often saying, ‘If you let us paint, we’ll do it for free’.”
His field research took him all over New York – considered graffiti mecca – through all kinds of neighbourhoods where he did interviews with graffiti writers and took photos of their work.
“What I saw was often colourful, elaborate and sophisticated; visually striking.”
Talking to the writers (a term they prefer to artist), he says many of his own assumptions turned out to be wrong.
“I was expecting my interviewees to be more political, to be making some sort of statement, but in fact that wasn’t often the case. They were graffiti writers because they enjoyed it as a creative expression, and just wanted to be left alone to get on with it.”
In common with all subcultures, graffiti has its own hierarchy and codes of behaviour. It’s strongly linked with the rise of hip hop in boroughs of New York
like the South Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn during the 1960s and 70s, and to African-American and Hispanic communities.
It also has a rich language; angels and kings, massacres and masterpieces, black books and honour among thieves or “hat”: not the plot of the latest Dan Brown, but graffiti terms.
The most basic Google search reveals the culture’s rich history and stylistic complexities, and yet it’s still widely written off as a public nuisance to be stamped out, a position Ron’s research analyses and challenges. While in New York, as here, there is a growing public acceptance of graffiti and street art – usually distinguished from the generally reviled “tagging” – important questions remain.
“There is a lot of political meaning in what becomes mainstream and legal, what is considered illegal, and who gets to contribute to public space and be heard. For example, there’s ongoing official opposition to graffiti, legal or otherwise, in New York; it’s intensely criminalised and vilified by the mass print media.”
The dominant discourse is informed by the widely followed, but also widely disputed, “Broken Windows” theory, (James Q. Wilson, George L. Kelling 1982), whose simplified premise is; if a potential vandal sees an already broken window or a rubbish-filled street they will be more likely to break more windows and toss more rubbish.
Hence the fervent speed with which authorities remove all unwanted tagging and graffiti.
“Graffiti is still seen as a harbinger of urban doom,” says Ron, “but a lot of these ideas have been discredited, so why do politicians endorse them? Cling to them? Why spend millions to fight it?”
He believes it’s to do with a certain vision of a city and who it’s designed for; and misguided moral panic.
“Middle-class tastes and dispositions are powerful economic motivations. Graffiti supposedly threatens property values, but whose property and values are we talking about?”
In western neoliberal societies, wealthy middle-class consumers worry about property values above all else, and thus the state (or council) must protect their investment.
“Auckland city, for example, has a $5 million budget to get rid of graffiti.” A distinction can be made between who does what type of graffiti, and for which audience, he says.
A shifting landscape in recent decades has seen a whole new wave of respectability for street art, with the rise of globally recognised names like Keith Haring, Jenny Holzer, Basquiat and Banksy, who is still “technically illegal”, in that he writes without permission in public space.
Now solidly mainstream, these artists emerged when street art moved into the galleries and the focus went from nuisance value to aesthetic value.
“Graffiti writers are often stereotyped as young, poor, urban, black and from places like South Bronx and Brooklyn, but you do have wealthy, white graffiti writers. It’s a global phenomenon, every city produces a graffiti subculture, and its participants range across the whole social spectrum. It’s become more diverse in the past 30 or 40 years.”
And many of the early pioneers haven’t left.
“They’ve persevered and have now become an imbedded part of the social fabric. A similar thing has happened with tattoo artists.”
It would be nice, Ron believes, if people learned to see the value all types of graffiti might have.
“I think that distinction [what is acceptable and what isn’t] is about freedom for privileged social groups and constraints for less privileged groups. That’s what you see playing out. It makes a lot more sense when you think what agenda does it allow people to pursue, and how powerful people, [mayors, councillors, police, the media] speak about the less powerful.”
To get an image to go with this story, Ron takes me and photographer Billy Wong on a spontaneous mini street art tour around the back streets off Auckland’s Karangahape Road and Newton gully, an area that I later discover has actively encouraged graffiti art to complement its fringy, creative feel.
Like gawking strangers in our own city, we pass tattoo parlours, vintage clothing shops, hip design companies, an Asian supermarket and masses of vibrant, diverse street art, some of it apparently done by well-known names.
As a dedicated feline fan, Ron’s disappointed that a particular cat image has been painted over on Mercury Lane, but happy to see a large realistic-looking owl nearby and a whole wall done in stylish black and white interconnected shapes by BMD.
Despite only living in the city a few years, he knows this area well because his wife is a keen cyclist and often uses the flash pink cycleway that runs parallel to the north western motorway.
Posed for the photo in a hidden back alley, with no ivory towers in sight, he looks perfectly at home.
*Originally published in Ingenio: The University of Auckland Alumni Magazine
Ronald Kramer is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Auckland. His latest book is The Rise of Legal Graffiti Writing in New York and Beyond.