Like a lot of graffiti writers, Kris Kanaly started young. First, by doodling a tag name, “P-nut,” when he was six years old. Then, by picking up cans of spray paint in the ditch near his childhood home in Oklahoma City. He eventually settled on an alias he still uses to this day: RHAK.
It’s the name he chose to spray paint on a wall in the Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center on Sunday night. The letters are outlined in yellow, orange, blue and gray. They look like they’re stepping off the wall.
“When we paint letters or draw letters, it's really easy to all of a sudden see a character in the letter. It takes on a human-like persona,” Kanaly said. “If you take an ‘R’ or ‘K’ and you extend the leg of the ‘R’ out, it looks like kind of feet walking.”
Kanaly is one of ten artists featured in a new exhibition at the Oklahoma Contemporary called Not for Sale: Graffiti Culture in Oklahoma. His mural is among several large pieces painted directly on the walls of the gallery space. Along with the murals, the gallery is hosting lectures and classes about hip hop and graffiti through October and November.
Like other artists in the show, Kanaly has turned his graffiti experience into a career. He studied graphic design in college, and works as a creative director at an advertising agency in downtown Oklahoma City. Now that he’s 40 years old, tagging illegally no longer has the same appeal.
“I'm a dad and a family man and I have a good career going. I don't want to screw any of that,” he said.
But Kanaly still gets commissions for graffiti-style murals. He sees the influence the art form has had on street art and public spaces around the world. He thinks graffiti will never go away, whether or not it’s illegal.
“It's in human nature to mark the places that we've been to, especially if we feel like it was a monumental achievement to get there,” he said.
The Cost of Graffiti
But human nature can be expensive. It costs property owners and businesses money to remove graffiti from buildings. The city of Oklahoma City spent more than $300,000 on graffiti abatement in fiscal year 2016.
Graffiti can be related to more serious crimes, too. About a quarter of the vandalism reported to the city is connected to gang activity, like marking territory or communicating with members, said Inspector Chris Cargill of the Oklahoma City Police Department, who served on the Graffiti Investigations Unit from 2010 to 2014. Sometimes, investigations into vandalism can uncover burglaries or drug deals.
Cargill is an artist himself, who sometimes runs into graffiti writers in the local art scene. For him, what defines graffiti is not a visual style or a culture.
“By definition, graffiti is not art. It's it's an illegal act of applying something to somebody else's property,” he said.
What matters to Cargill and other law enforcement is not whether art is spray painted on a wall--it matters whether it was done legally, with the permission of a property’s owner.
“If you want to be an artist, be a writer, a calligrapher, there’s plenty of legal options to express yourself where that’s not an issue,” he said.
When many of the artists in Not for Sale were growing up, there weren’t many legal options. Now, places like the Plaza District and the State Fair hire graffiti writers to paint on walls.
Angel Little, co-curator of Not for Sale, wants to be a part of that change.
Like Kris Kanaly, Little started writing graffiti as a child, when he was five years old. It’s been years since he’s painted in a public place, but he’s still passionate about graffiti and the other elements of hip hop. For the past four years, he’s taught hip hop classes at the Oklahoma Contemporary.
Little’s work isn’t in Not for Sale, but the exhibition was his idea. He wants people to understand that graffiti is more about the exchange of ideas and feelings than it is about destruction.
“It's a form of expression. The culture of hip hop itself, really in its basic essence, says that ‘I'm going to take the things that I see in my life, I'm going to filter it through me, and give it back to you. And the way that I give it back to you, that encourages you to do the same thing,’” he said.
Above all, Little thinks graffiti doesn’t have to be illegal. He wants to teach younger generations to express themselves in places where they have permission. And he wants cities and properties to provide places for that expression.
“If we have a place where it makes sense to do it, versus a place where that's not going to work out for you doing it, then we move in a progressive direction,” he said.
Not for Sale: Graffiti Culture in Oklahoma opens on Thursday, Oct. 5 at the Oklahoma Contemporary Arts Center.
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