Skid Robot is a Los Angeles based graffiti artist whose mission is to raise awareness about the global crisis of extreme poverty and homelessness. Just in the past year Skid Robot and his art partner, Captain Save-a-Homeless, have been incorporating homeless people into their artwork by creating a frame around them that depicts whatever the homeless people want (if they’re awake or realizing what is going on). These frames vary from thought and dream bubbles with money symbols and houses inside of them to actual frames of bedrooms with windows, curtains, and bedside tables (as shown above). It is not uncommon to even spot the Taj Mahal!
The artist signs his artwork with “#skidrobot” and leaves care packages with those who he paints around. Immediately I wondered how this is even remotely ethical at all. The last thing I wanted to hear about was another artist using a real and legitimate problem in society, in this case homelessness, to promote their own art without some sort of philanthropy or activism behind it. Skid Robot himself said he “felt like a dick doing it” so afterwards he will head over to the 99-cent store and buy toiletries, snacks, and make a sort of care package for the people who he create his art around. Though he could not give them an actual home, he gave them something that could be helpful.
The process itself begins to seem pretty sweet. Another problematic aspect of Ski Robot’s art is that the population he is designing his pieces around must be somewhat exploited. I know I would be pissed—Who in the hell does this guy think he is spray painting a fake home around me then leaving to spend the night with a roof over his head? The artist responds to this with a question of his own: Why is this person sleeping here in the first place? That is after all what Skid Robot wants people to think about. His art literally forces the viewer to look at the person sleeping underneath it—a person who they probably walked by without noticing when on their daily commute to and from their nice homes. He is turning something unnoticeable into something people will see and smile about—some people even pay the homeless to take pictures of the artwork behind them!
According to Skid Robot, he did have a shank pulled on him once and has been chased down, but overall the people he has worked with have been friendly. If they are passed out he will work around them and leave them a care package to wake up to—not a horrible surprise for those constantly in danger sleeping in the city. Skid Robot got personal with one homeless man named Birdman after buying him Chick-fil-A. To Skid Robot, the purpose of his art is for compassion—“It’s saying that if we can care about those who are around us who are in need, [we should] help our neighbor, help our fellow man”.
I found interesting how the illegal act of graffiti collides with the controversial legality of homelessness—especially in Los Angeles. Just recently Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti announced an initiative which will allocate millions of dollars towards fighting and reducing homelessness in the city. The issue of homelessness has been declared a city emergency, and one of the goals of this initiative is to make housing more affordable. Garcetti told NPR: “We can’t simply criminalize homelessness. But we’ve fought on the streets with – against homeless advocate; a battle that is losing for both of us. When they win, and we can’t clear a sidewalk, no more person has been housed.”
Graffiti itself is illegal under California penal code, but Skid Robot assures that the reaction to his artwork has been mainly positive–despite the fact that it is literally the defacing of someone else’ property. This leads me to ponder a very philosophical question: Are illegal acts okay if they are for the greater good? I do not think there is a right or wrong answer, but it is definitely something to consider and talk about when art and crime collide like it does in Skid Robot’s line of work. Birdman told him that one day cops came by and warned him that whoever is creating the graffiti will go to jail when they catch him. Skid Robot’s response? “I doubt that they’re going to set up a sting operation and walk for me”. I feel as though he is pretty correct there. In my opinion, graffiti is not a top priority crime when it is located in an already rough neighborhood. If Skid Robot painted in a higher end district of the city things might be different. That being said, not many homeless spend time in those areas for Skid Robot to bother with them anyway.
There are websites dedicated to discussing the legality of graffiti as an art. One of these is www.graffiti.org/. They believe (as so many others) that art belongs in the public space, and graffiti should not be criminalized as gang-related which much of it is does by people who consider it as an art form. It has been suggested that “legal walls” should be made available for these artists to display their creations. I like the idea, but I feel as though it will take away the aspect of surprise and excitement from seeing new and controversial graffiti whenever and where ever.
Will graffiti lose its bravado when it becomes legal and organized to belong in certain spaces only? Does that not defeat the purpose of arguing that art belongs in public spaces? Personally, I do not want to go somewhere specific to look at legal graffiti—I want to be surprised walking down the street by art. Art deserves to be in PUBLIC spaces not city-subsidized areas. Skid Row’s Tumblr http://skidrobot.tumblr.com/ has more of his artwork in other major cities in the United States like Baltimore, Miami, and New York. There is even a photo of him with Birdman when he gave him a new radio.