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Graffiti or art? ‘It’s all about permission’

Artist John Osgood and his wife, Michelle, who own Greenwood art gallery Bherd Studios, hate graffiti in their neighborhood, even though John’s artistic style is inspired by the streets.
“It’s all about permission,” Michelle says of the difference between graffiti and urban art. “With tagging, people are just putting their name up and laying claim to a territory, seeing how many times they can do something.”
John says taggers have avoided the long mural on the safety fence next to Taproot Theatre out of what he considers respect. (John was one of three artists who created the mural after the Eleanor Roosevelt Building was destroyed in the Oct. 23 arson.)

John Osgood, Zach Bohnenkamp and Kevin “Sensei23″ Sullivan created this mural next to Taproot Theatre on North 85th Street. It was unveiled on Dec. 31, 2009, and has not been hit by taggers.
However, they did tag his painting on the outside back door of nearby Neptune Coffee. John says it’s because he added his studio’s name on that painting.
“When you put a mural up and it’s an artistic mural and it doesn’t have any names on it…people seem to respect it,” Michelle explains. “But as soon as you add a name, like a crew name, it gets tagged up.”
Artist John Osgood created this painting on the back door of Neptune Coffee. It was hit by taggers as soon as he added his studio name in the bottom right corner.
Graffiti has been a hot topic in our neighborhood and around the city lately. The Seattle Times published an in-depth feature on citywide graffiti Monday, with links to several neighborhood news partner websites (including PhinneyWood) for a micro-level look at the issue.
A few months ago, after PhinneyWood readers sent in numerous tips about fresh graffiti in the neighborhood, PhinneyWood created an interactive Graffiti Map on our home page, where people can report graffiti on public or private property, and find links to report it to the city. Once you’ve noticed that the graffiti has been cleaned up, you can go back in and mark that on the map.
John says most taggers are in their teens or early 20’s and are bored, and he definitely sees an increase in graffiti when the weather is nice and school is out. Many people automatically think that graffiti may be related to gangs, but he says that’s usually not the case. It’s just someone looking for attention.
“The person who does tagging has a crafty mind of ‘how can I not get caught?’” he says.
He and Bohnenkamp are currently working with teens at the Youngstown Cultural Arts Center in West Seattle’s Delridge neighborhood to create murals. He hopes that by encouraging young kids and teens to channel their artistic creativity into something productive, it can help reduce graffiti.
“I went in with a few ideas, then I had the kids sort of pick what they wanted to do,” he says. “Corralling kids to work on something is not easy. I had to make it fun and show them that it’s a sense of pride.”

This is the first mural created by students in Youngstown Cultural Center’s All Access after school program, with the help of artists John Osgood and Zach Bohnenkamp of Seattle Mural Art.
He says parents and schools always encourage art at a young age, but then seem to give up in middle school or high school because they don’t think it’s as important as other academic areas, leaving artistic kids with no outlet.
“I was always drawing,” John says of his childhood. “My parents were at the studio last night for our show, and my dad was telling people about their kids, ‘If he starts drawing and you see that he’s into it, just let him go.’”
John’s wife agrees. “There’s a whole creativity that we lose” as we get older, Michelle says. “Keeping in touch with art or music connects with something different in your brain.”
Looking at John’s artwork, one might assume he has a history of graffiti when he was younger, but that’s not the case.
“John’s background isn’t in the streets,” Michelle says. “His artwork is inspired by street art and graffiti.”
“What I’m doing is I’m trying to make a job (out of art),” John says. “The stuff that I do, the tagger or graffiti artist will like it.”
Besides his art that he sells at Bherd (pronounced “be heard,”) John creates quite a few works on commission, and also helps stage homes for sale with his art.

Michelle and John Osgood inside their Greenwood art gallery, Bherd Studios.
Osgood and Bohnenkamp’s urban art was recently recognized on an international scale. The pair were selected to show their art at Upfest, the Urban Paint Festival in Bristol, UK, in early June. Of the 200 street artists and muralists chosen for the largest urban arts festival in Europe, one-third are from Bristol, one-third from the rest of the United Kingdom, and one-third from the rest of the world. The duo are raising money for their travel expenses in part by selling these limited edition prints.

John says he would love to see a large “free wall” set up in a local park where kids can create temporary art. He says that would cut down on graffiti and give kids permission to be creative without being destructive. Someone could take pictures and document the changes on a website, so that the art lives on, at least digitally. He cites Redmond’s free wall at a skate park. “It’s been a great outlet for kids,” he says. “What a great place to have kids experiment and learn how to use spray paint. You have to learn how to hold it and how to hold your body.”
The Osgoods and others in the neighborhood are working with the Greenwood-Phinney Chamber of Commerce on a coordinated graffiti paint-out effort. Since private property owners need to give their permission for someone else to paint out graffiti, they’re hoping the Chamber can get advance permission from neighborhood business owners to paint out graffiti as soon as it pops up.
“We want to get kids involved. We’re not going to ask questions like ‘Are you a tagger? If so you can’t be involved.’” Michelle says. “We’d love to have kids be involved in a paint-out. We just want positive reinforcement.”