» Chalking against the open space

A relationship between the public space and chalking as means of communication

Abstract: This paper covers the topic of chalking within the public space frame in order to present it as possibility to empower marginalized groups such as homeless, children or poor people. With the contemporary commodification of public space any unwanted or unplanned intervention meets incomprehension or refusal, mostly from legal forces, private subject or sometimes even from the public itself. Chalking then is somehow a political act even though the primary purpose of this action does not have to be political itself. This clash as I argue originate from two different perspectives of public space as either inclusive or exclusive.


In this essay I would like to cover the topic of public space in relation to chalking which has recently become an easy way for people to express their opinions. With the emergence of social movements such as Occupy, it has entered the public space as a reaction to police violence or as means of communication for marginalized groups like homeless people. Even though it might appear as an unharmful and innocent act, chalking has caused quite a stir – many chalkers had to face an arrest or duty to pay a fine. The official justification given by US courts is that chalking is vandalism similar to graffiti. But there is also another agent, i.e. the contemporary perception of public space and the ambiguous line between public and private space. There are two different ideologies of public space that collide with each other and thus create social tension between the activists and marginalized groups on one side and the city officers and urban developers on the other. In the first part I present public space and its aspects, the second one is dedicated to chalking in general and in the third one I show how the perception of public space is linked to the oppression of chalkers.

Picture 1: Defensible Space (skateboarders) Here it is possible to observe how certain groups of people can exercise they power in public space. On this photo from Hamburg district Hafencity we can see a built-in obstacles against skateboarders, which might be considered as a security threat in this area. Source of Photo: Dr. Nils Zurawski

Part I: The Public Space and its construction
The public space, in contrast to private space, builds up an illusion of being a space for everyone, with no exceptions. But the opposite is true, public space is a place where social inequality is not erased and may be even reinforced. Today’s public space is carefully constructed as to provide no room for any unwanted or unplanned phenomenon. When such phenomenon occurs, there is a need to fight it on side of developers, city and police officers or other groups. The space is being ,,disneyfied”, carefully controlled and planned, allowing only for a movement within terms of consumption and emotional sensations, which results in homogenization of the public space (Zukin, 1995). When the marginalized groups, e.g. homeless people or children, try to claim their rights for it, the public feels it has been robbed of its own property (Mitchell, 1995, p. 117). Today’s public space (if there is a still one, see Sorkin, 1992; Mitchell, 1995) is everything but democratic. Due to the aim of making the city secure (Davis, 1992, p. 155), it is the place of exclusion. On the other hand, public space itself is a risk to democracy because it can be occupied by other minority groups or social movements that can use it for spreading dangerous ideas or even violence, e.g. in 1930’s Germany (Mitchell, 1995, p. 124). What happens here is a new type of territorial fight (Mitchell, 1995, p. 116) which is built upon two aspects: different views of public space and its function and the struggle between those who want to gain access to the public space and those who dominate it.

Access to public space
According to Lefebvre (1991) social space is a social product that consists of:
,,(1) the social relations of reproduction, i.e. the bio-physiological relations between the sexes and between age groups, along with the specific organization of family; and (2) the relations of production, i.e. the division of labour and its organization in the form of hierarchical social functions. These two sets of relations, production and reproduction, are inextricably bound up with one another” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 32). These relations are often marked by social inequalities, some people thus cannot participate in public space to the same extent as other people, which as I will show can lead (and has led) to series of clashes.
The struggles for the right to space date to ancient Greece, where the first public space, agora, emerged (Hartley, 1992, p. 29 – 30). Here the public disputes were bound up with commerce and spectacle, everyone (both citizens and non-citizens) could be present in this space but only citizens (males who were not slaves nor foreigners) could actually participate. Non-citizens were politically invisible and therefore left out from public which then consisted only of people with power, standing and respectability (Mitchell, 1995, p. 116). In the Middle Ages the public ceased to exist, it was represented by a single person (the landlord, i.e. the king). The modern public had not been formed until the emergence of modern city in the Victorian era (Briggs, 1968, p. 138). For the first time, Berman argues (1988, p. 150), the city had become available to all its inhabitants who could enjoy the public space almost without any restrictions. But still, as Habermas shows in his The structural transformation of public sphere (1989), the influential public was constituted by the bourgeoisie, individuals who came together as a public in order to discuss the power of state and whose needs were built upon their private reasons. Since they possessed the communication skills and had the power over the institutions of government, they were the most influential actors in the formation of public space. Public sphere has become an institution (Goheen, 1998, p. 485). In Berman (also Zukin, 1995) and Habermas we see two different concepts of public sphere formed in the 19th century, inclusive and exclusive. The inclusive concept sees the public as becoming more generalized and democratized, the exclusive concept is more in line with the ideas of restrictive public space, it takes into account groups and their interests which are significant for the construction of public spaces (Goheen, 1998, p. 481).

Picture 2: Defensible Space (homeless people) These two photographs depict so called anti-homeless benches which are constructed in a manner that no one could take a nap or sit for a longer time. They urge the user to move away quickly. On the left side we see an example from Rotterdam metro and on the right from Oxford. Source of Photo:

With the socio-historical changes such as abolishment of slavery or gain of women rights, some groups have also become part of the public, owing to a long series of social struggles they had to undertake. The others have continued being excluded from public space (foreigners, homeless, ethnical minorities, people doing graffiti, skateboarders, etc.) and thus have to compete for their spatial rights. This fight is hidden, because the public itself is passive, receptive and ‘refined‘ (Crilley, 1993, p. 153), it does not take place on the street, it is embedded into the street itself, the street as a defensible space controlled by the public. This can be observed in places that are built in a way that they exclude some groups. One example is building obstacles for skateboarders (Picture 1), homeless people (Picture 2) and etc. or any restrictive regulations directing individuals how to behave in certain public spaces, such as ban on sitting on grass, playing ball games, sleeping etc. This comes from the view of public space as a threat for the private space, the public space is seen as a place of harboring crime and thus as a threat for one’s home or business, so there is a need to exercise control over public space (Goheen, 1998, p. 491).
This ambivalent relationship between private and public space has led some researchers to the opinion that public space has come to its end (Mitchell, 1995; Sennet, 1992) as a result of corporate and state planning of the city and the ban of interactive and discursive politics within the city planning (Mitchell, 1995, p. 119). Sennet (1992) argues this has resulted in the emergence of dead public spaces, vacant public spaces surrounding modern office buildings, and the development of festive spaces in which the consumption is being encouraged, like festival marketplaces, malls or downtown redevelopment areas. Both of these spaces are built upon premises of a perceived need for control over public spaces and its surveillance. This is nowadays even reinforced by the omnipresent surveillance cameras, being run by public subjects such as police or city officers or by private subjects like private security companies in order to secure the neighborhoods, as we see it in today’s popular gated communities. As Sennet shows (1994, p. 375), the space thus becomes an empty space, a space in which the individuals are relatively free but not encouraged to connect with others. Public space is being commodified and therefore becomes more private than public. Where it used to be a ground for politics, commerce and spectacle, it is now a place only for commerce and spectacle and all that in the name of comfort, safety and profit. This comes in hand with the disneyfication of space. Where mall landscapes are being created there is no place for uncontrolled social interaction, they are designed for market, not for people. As a result we can see the increasing alienation of people while the economic agents successfully exercise their power over the public space (Mitchell, 1995, p. 119). This development is then in line with the second reason for the territorial fight, which is the different understanding of public space, its function and desired attributes.

The contrast in understanding of public space
The perception of the function of public space differs in the views of marginalized groups such as activists, homeless or even kids in contrast to the views of developers, city or police officers, as Don Mitchell shows in his The End of Public Space? People’s Park, Definitions of the Public, and Democracy (1995). He describes the process of a renewal of a park in Berkeley which has discontinued the social-activist aspect of use of this park and substituted it with carefully controlled use of space aimed at relaxing. Until then it was being used as place where marginalized groups like homeless could gather or the political activists could express their attitudes. According to Goheen (1998, p. 479) this expression of attitudes is what creates a meaningful public space where different groups assert their claims and use it for its own purposes. These purposes obviously differ and they are based on the perceived idea of space. For the activists and the homeless people the park served as ,,an unconstrained space within which political movements can organize and expand into wider arenas” (Mitchell, 1995, p. 115). The University’s vision was very different -they had an idea of an open space for recreation and entertainment and with restricted access, based on ‘wanted’ people and opening hours. People could then enjoy the spectacle and feel comfortable, without any disturbing elements, within safe and controlled area, where any possible disorder is being minimized. Yet this open space is not a public space per se.
Since the end of World War II there has been a massive growth of suburbanization in the North America which together with the urban renewal brought up many open spaces. These spaces could not be called public spaces anymore because their creation and function was based on different ideology. They have been built for motives such as recreation, preserving ecologically sensitive areas, removing flood plains from development or maintaining property values by establishing an undevelopable greenbelt etc. All of these stimuluses for building such spaces lack the political function of public space, thus it should not be called the public spaces but open spaces or pseudo spaces, which are highly regulated, with numerous restrictions of activities and behaviour (Mitchell, 1995, p. 121). As we will see in the next part, chalking is an attempt to overcome such tendencies.

Part II: Chalking

Picture 6: Children and their parents who had to deal with law due to chalking On the left side we see daughter of Susan Mortensen who had to serve 50 hours of community service due to chalking. The second picture depicts Natalia Shea who had to face a possibility of 300 $ fine, which she (her parents) did not have to pay since the chalk was washed by the rain before deadline for cleaning the space.
Picture 6: Children and their parents who had to deal with law due to chalking
On the left side we see daughter of Susan Mortensen who had to serve 50 hours of community service due to chalking. The second picture depicts Natalia Shea who had to face a possibility of 300 $ fine, which she (her parents) did not have to pay since the chalk was washed by the rain before deadline for cleaning the space.

In past six years more than 50 people in 17 US states (Picture 3) had a problem with the law due to chalking (Harkinson, 2012). Even though in this essay I mostly focus on a situation in the United States of America, where chalking as a criminalized behavior is most widespread, chalking incidents also take place in the United Kingdom. Even though every US state has different law, the chalking is usually sued as vandalism (graffiti) or criminal mischief. For example the California Penal Code Section 594 says that ,,every person who maliciously commits any of the following acts with respect to any real or personal property not his or her own, in cases other than those specified by state law, is guilty of vandalism: (1) Defaces with graffiti or other inscribed material.(2) Damages. (3) Destroys” (California Legislative Information, 2013). On this ground, Failinger (2012, p. 11), who analyzed law suits against the chalkers, says that children, students or businesses (Windows recently used chalking as a promo for Windows 7) are not sued (with exceptions) because they do not chalk maliciously and therefore it is not considered defacing. But do the other chalkers do it maliciously?
Protesters, social and political activists are the largest group facing charges, acting either within a bigger frame of some social movement or on their own. Nowadays’ most active “community” of chalkers is based in LA, as a part of the Occupy movement (Picture 4). Several people have been charged with vandalism, e.g. during the so-called Art walk in July, 2012. People were orderly chalking here but then one protester was arrested which triggered disturbances and the protesters started throwing bottles at the police. This riot resulted in 4 injured officers and a few injured protesters (Harkinson, 2012). On August 9th the Occupy movement has established a ,,Chalkupy the World day” which took place in dozen locations, including New York City, Austin and New Orleans. On the same day two people were arrested in Austin while drawing in the public space even though they were told not to chalk only in front of the Capitol, which is forbidden since this space is not considered as public space but as Capitol grounds (Procknow, 2012). On the Christmas 2012 36-years-old James Peterson, a member of Occupy, suited up as Santa Claus and started to chalk in the field in front of the Capitol (Picture 5). They were chalking there with children and their parents their Christmas wishes and were asked to stop by the Capitol employee. Peterson refused and ended up arrested and charged with criminal mischief and his ‘Corey Elf’ had the similar chalk-ending after he wrote ,,Free Santa” on the pavement while Peterson was being arrested (Stephens, 2012).
What media call ‘war on chalk’ is also present at the very political sites like Democratic and Republican conventions, for example on the 2008’s Democratic convention in Denver two teenagers were cuffed because they chalked anti-abortion slogans on the sideways. Furthermore we can observe ‘the war’ in front of police stations like in an event called The Chalking 8, which took place in Manchester, New Hampshire on June 4th 2011. A group of people protested against the police brutality and they used chalks to write on the sidewalks and building’s exterior walls which then resulted in arrest of eight people and confiscation of nine cameras/phones (Eyre, 2011).
The second type of chalk activists are the protesters who operate on their own. As an example we can take Rachel Kijewski who drew outlines of bodies on a bridge in Palm Beach, Florida to draw attention to those who died while crossing the Mexican border. She was arrested but later the charges were dropped. Or Koje Arije who wrote anti-Hitler slogans sidewalks during white supremacist gathering in Denver, Colorado. He was charged with destruction of property, the charges were also eventually dropped. A particular category of chalkers consists of politically engaged artists. Alexander Schaefer, an artist and art teacher based in LA, was arrested fifteen times for socio-political chalking during the summer 2012 (Harkinson, 2012). But even the non-political artists can get into trouble: Liz Baldwin, an art student from London wanted to achieve the longest chalk-line record yet she was unsuccessful because the officer forced her to stop, so she left frustrated (Coldwell, 2012).
Another group of chalkers is predominantly non-political in their chalking intentions – children and their parents. Here the situation gets a bit different, the chalking kids and their parents are being harassed not only by the police but also by other citizens (Picture 6). Natalia Shea, a 6-year-old girl from Brooklyn, obtained a letter saying that she had 45 days to clean the graffiti or she would be charged with $300 fine. When her mother called the City Sanitation Department which issued this letter, she was told that the department has to issue this letter every time when someone complains. Natalia’s blue flowers were washed by the rain before the deadline so her parents did not have to face any other fines or charges (Gould & Melango, 2007) but Susan Mortesen, 29-year-old mom was not so lucky. She let her 4-year-old daughter draw on graphite rocks in Belle Isle park in Virginia and afterwards she was sentenced to 50 hours of community service (Murray, 2012).
The last and very special group that has the least voice and power in this war on chalk are the homeless. They have minimum of options how to express their opinions and to use their freedom of speech right given by the US First Amendment. The courts argue that other means of ‘communication’ can be used, namely passing out flyers, carrying or wearing signs, public speaking or door-to-door solicitation, but even some of the suggested methods do not fit in the homeless budget and chalking is relatively cheap and can attract relatively big audience (Failinger, 2012).

Part III: Chalking in (Public) Space
Because all pictures are political, regardless of their subject (Hartley, 1992, p. 28), we can analyze every act and every output (i.e. picture) of chalking as political. This does not mean that all of chalking is meant to be political but that it can to be thought of within the political frame. In the war on chalk we can see both of the aspects presented in Part I, the difference in the opinion what is public space and how it should be used and the struggle between marginalized groups and those who dominate the public sphere.
Both of the aspects are expressed in the opinion of Austin’s Chalkupy participant Hillary Procknow who was chalking there with her two children expecting a calm afternoon which however ended up with her children being scared off by police officers arresting chalkers. She says that ,,the Chalkupy event was supposed to be a gathering of people using sidewalk chalk to express, well, anything really, but mostly dissent or disenchantment with the way things in our country have evolved to either favor the ultra-wealthy or punish the poor, middleclass, marginalized, or otherwise ‘different’ people” (Procknow, 2012). Here the struggle is straightforward and chalk is used as a medium for communication between marginalized groups mentioned by Procknow mentions and the influential public. In line with this is Schaefer’s opinion given in his video (2012) that covers his action in front of The Chase Bank. On the pavement he depicted their logos with modified mottos such as ‘chaos’ or ‘crooks’. In the end he was politely asked if he had a permission. He declined so the bank employee called police that arrested him (Picture 4). In the video he claims that chalking is a perfect form of protest against the state, which is non-violent and non-destructive because people should not think that with the next elections something is going to change. In his point of view it also allows people to ,,let their thoughts out”. This perception of chalking as an expression of one’s attitudes within the public space is given by the second aspect, by the difference of perceptions.
All the mentioned chalkers used the space as a place for expressing their ideas, even the children whose objects of interest ranged from flowers or animals (Natalia Shea and Mortensen’s daughter) to subjects that might be considered political (Procknow’s daughter drew a recycling triangle, children attending the Christmas chalking wrote words like ’Peace’ or ’Grace’). This mean they perceive the public space as an unconstrained place where they can freely act to some point and at the same time they can be heard, i.e. seen. Therefore they understand the public space as a place for all, politics, market and spectacle.
Tom Tosdal, Shaefer’s attorney, sees chalking as a way of political expression: “in California, vandalism is maliciously defacing a property,” he says, “and when you express a political or social idea, it’s not malicious” (Harkinson, 2012). This sentence suggests that the state of California sees chalking more as a spatial issue than political one. As Failinger (2012) observes, the majority of courts classify the crime of chalking in the same way, as a damage to one’s property. The space is thus seen as an open space, in which only the wanted phenomena can be present and every disturbance should be suppressed. This space is also highly commodified and defended as it can be observed in Schaefer’s video, where the bank employee shields the space in front of the bank, which is not the “right” space for such expression. Similar stance can be found in case of Susan Mortensen who led her daughter to draw in place that had been designed for a particular type of recreation and relax. One might argue that her daughter’s chalking was recreation or relax but it would also leave there a message. A semi-permanent expression of this girl would for a short time, before the rain comes, question the function of the space and therefore its existence.

Even though chalking is sometimes a prequel for social disturbances and riots, as in cases of Chalking 8 and Occupy LA, chalking is a non-violent and unharmful way of expressing one’s thoughts. As I argue in this essay, the social disturbances have their origin in two factors. The first one is the struggle between the marginalized groups and the influential public, the second one is a different perception of (public) space. Since I understand public as more exclusive than inclusive concept, I consider the public space a product of the influential public which has its own interests that have to be taken in account. The idea of constructed space is then more restrictive than democratic. Therefore the other groups have to struggle in order to claim their rights and one medium used in this fight is the chalk. It empowers people to relatively cheaply express themselves and to be heard and seen which is crucial for groups like homeless people who are being systematically pushed away from public spaces and public itself. This ‘clean up’ is embodied in the perception of social space as planned and controlled and functioning as a safe place for recreation and relaxation. The function of these spaces is commercial and sensational, with no room for human connection such as expression of opinions. The chalkers understand these social spaces as public spaces per se, not only open spaces, and therefore they act accordingly, which creates the tension between them and the public.

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