Never underestimate the ingenuity of artists in Charleston, especially when they leave the studio and easel for street and façade.

Don’t worry, these artists are not necessarily trigger-happy teenagers with a can of Krylon. Graffiti is a process: scouting for the perfect spot, imagining an appropriate piece for that location, and lastly, but most importantly, finding a way to paint the piece without getting caught.

Although the city’s graffiti scene is young compared to Baltimore, New York and Paris, when it started, it started in full sprint. So much so, in fact, that it quickly caught the attention of the city and those in charge of keeping the peace.

Good graffiti is well thought out, and it should be since the fine for getting caught has more than quadrupled in recent years. There are more police patrolling the city now and, consequently, the number of thought-provoking pieces has declined.

But in this rebellious recession, artists remain optimistic.

“When I see graffiti it creates a feeling of true love. I don’t think that punishment can stop someone when it is a true love,” says Ishmael, the highly-regarded local graffitist who derives his nom de guerre from Daniel Quinn’s novel of the same name.

Local taggers admit that, for a number of reasons, including Charleston’s natural and historic beauty, we’re not a graffiti-friendly city. Although they say that a good graffiti writer knows what is appropriate and inappropriate to write on.

“I have a respect for history. Just because I do graffiti does not mean I hate our city or country,” says a rep of a local graffiti writer crew.

So, why graffiti?

The medium holds more power than a paintbrush and canvas. It is a way to leave your mark, to be seen by a larger audience. It reminds younger kids that there is art in Charleston that exists outside of Rainbow Row or a lonely Palmetto tree and crescent moon.

Of course, there is always the allure of doing something solely because someone in authority told you not to. In this sense, graffiti is an expression of the question everyone thinks at some point, “Well, why can’t I do it?”

It’s a valid question. Artists such as Ishmael and others risk a lot when they ask it.

But graffiti artists are resilient. One nameless artist says, “If you are a true graffiti writer you are never going to stop doing it, no matter what the law is.”

The rules that prohibit this art are the very ones that enable it. After all, there is no rebellion where there are no rules.

See works by Ishmael and other nationally acclaimed graffiti artists at Eye Level Art’s “Familiar Strangers” show on 10/22.

Story by: Seth Amos

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