If you've lived in Charlotte for any amount of time, you've probably seen the image of Smokey Bear sporting a fancy bowler stamped with a pot leaf. Sometimes, he's even in a vintage black suit and tie.
That interpretation of an iconic mascot (we all know the dangers of forest fires, don't we?) can be found on stickers all over NoDa, Plaza Midwood, South End and who knows where else around town. They've also made their way to Atlanta, Seattle, Portland and other places.
To the artist's satisfaction, some people hate it, while others praise him for his work. "Every time I put one up, I have this great feeling that someone's gonna see it and they're gonna laugh or hate it," says Smokey Contraband, the artist behind the project. "But they're gonna see it regardless."
He chose to remain anonymous for this story; the reason will be clear as you continue reading. After two interviews, I still don't know his real name.
SmokeyC's Smokey Bear can be found on posters, stickers and banners, but it's also branded on clothing, hats and patches. You may have even walked across it spray-painted on the sidewalk. The message? Marijuana should be legalized, and people should be able to use it how they see fit. (During election season, he released an image on Instagram endorsing Sean Haugh for senator, as the Libertarian supports legalization. "He's a pretty cool, old peaceful dude," SmokeyC says.)
You can access SmokeyC's work practically anywhere almost anytime, so it's safe to classify this as public art, right? It's art and it's open to the public — case closed, yeah?
There's a ton of stuff, good and bad, that can be called public art, but in that realm there are still differences. Publicly funded art on public property is obviously considered public art (your tax dollars at work), and privately funded art that sits on private property, but happens to be in public view, is too. (Think the colorful murals on the patio at Salud on North Davidson Street, separately commissioned works by the Colombian artist Nico and Charlotte's Nick Garris.)
But then there are artists like SmokeyC who put what they want, where they want.
The Association for Public Art groups them all together by saying that public art is "there for everyone, a form of collective community expression ... a reflection of how we see the world ... a part of our public history, part of our evolving culture and our collective memory." But that's deceivingly vague.
SmokeyC practices a guerilla-style of public art — it's street art, whether you, the viewer, want it or not. That's not to say that street artists like this 23-year-old only put their work up where it isn't wanted. SmokeyC actually strives to do the exact opposite.
"It's always gotta be the perfect spot," SmokeyC says. "I only like [working on] buildings that I feel like are old or abandoned or I feel like they may love it for a little bit and take it off later on."
That's one reason you can find plenty of his work around NoDa, because he feels like it's more welcomed there. That may not be the case for long, however, as the neighborhood continues to grow and change. "It's not gonna be NoDa any more, it's gonna become North Davidson," he added.
Even in NoDa, some of his work is under more scrutiny than others. One of his posters reads: "Fuck Cops, Smoke Pot." So it's understandable why some people have mixed feelings about the onslaught of Smokey Bear's visage peppering the city.
One of those people is Amy Bagwell, director of The Wall Poems of Charlotte, a project that showcases the poetry of North Carolina writers through wall murals. But she also says the cool thing about most street art is that its message is uncontrolled. "It's directly from the artist or designer to you. There's no one in between and so it's a very pure expression."
While a pure message can be a great thing, Bagwell says that it all comes back to the question of control. Heck, even SmokeyC agrees that if left completely unregulated, the city would slowly be consumed with sloppy and tasteless gang tags. This makes the message absolutely critical.
That fact alone helps regulate guerilla-style street art to a certain extent. There aren't many people spending their time and money and risking legal trouble for something they don't care about, so the messages that make it to the street are generally held close by the artists who put them there.
SmokeyC says he believes whole-heartedly in the principles that inspire his work. But that doesn't justify him putting his images up wherever he wants. If it did, he wouldn't be putting up posters at night with a friend standing nearby as a lookout.
"I love going with somebody because I feel safer ... as in from cops," SmokeyC says.
SmokeyC recalls one close call in Atlanta, when two police officers caught him putting up one of his larger posters on an unused billboard. The officers let him go with a warning and actually told him that if he was going to put up posters and stickers, to do it on the outskirts of town where they wouldn't be an eyesore to people visiting the city.
SmokeyC defends his work by saying that his posters and stickers has potential to draw interest in the cities that house them. They're part of an underground arts culture that can give a city character, and for a growing urban area like Charlotte, that can appeal to a lot of people.
Charlotte does have plenty of ground-level programs in place that work to grow the city culturally, thanks to organizations like the Arts and Science Council. Many of these projects even give local artists a public platform. But there is one big difference in what the city takes credit for and what some artists put up illegally. That's the filter, or lack thereof.
"Nobody wants all of the same thing," Bagwell says. "I think in a healthy thriving city where there are lots of canvases, there should be a balance. There should be both. You're not gonna get the kind of provocation in a completely controlled environment that you're gonna get when you have the unexpected popping up. People need that provocation, people want it."
And SmokeyC is happy to bring it, one sticker at a time.
Plenty of organizations make the city a better place to live by facilitating the creation of works of public art. The Arts & Science Council (ASC), for example, manages the public arts programs for the city and county. It has a direct say in which artists will receive funding, and in turn, which messages make it to public view. (In 2003, Charlotte adopted an ordinance mandating 1 percent of the city's cost of construction for capital improvements budget go toward public art.)
But that's where things can get a bit touchy. Your tax dollars have funded public art projects around the city for years, and if you aren't fond of some of the more expensive pieces, that can be a sore subject.
Take for example, sculptor Thomas Sayre's "Furrow" — more commonly known as the giant orange discs that line the tracks of the City LYNX Blue Line. The city's taxpayers funded the installation of these tacky clay monstrosities that supposedly represent Charlotte's agricultural heritage. It's safe to say some Charlotteans would have liked to see that money used elsewhere.
The CATS Art in Transit program is responsible for the discs, but anyone who has ridden the light rail will tell you that there's more work to appreciate. Sculptures, pavers, windscreens and colorful mosaics forged from dozens of different materials give the 9.6-mile ride a vibrant appeal and merit to the program's cause along with it.
One project currently in the works is the ASC's Neighborhoods in Creative pARTnership initiative. The program has paired local artists, including The Wall Poems' Amy Bagwell, Sharon Dowell, Rosalia Torres-Weiner and others, with five neighborhoods (Elizabeth, Grove Park, Reid Park, Sedgefield and the Shamrock Drive Corridor) to enhance the communities aesthetically. The project should be completed next October.
Todd Stewart, the ASC's public art project manager, says the initiative gives younger artists with limited experience opportunities to get their work out in public and to grow as an artist at the same time.
It's a legitimate opportunity for any inexperienced artists who are feeling up to the challenge. I mean, if CATS Art in Transit is willing to pay big bucks for "Furrow," imagine what else could get approved.
Out of the city's 40 or so code-enforcement inspectors, four are responsible for identifying and deciding whether or not graffiti needs to be removed and how to remove it. This comes in addition to the other complaints their job requires them to respond to — cars parked on the yard, trash cans being left on the street for days, unkempt lawns. You know, the old-lady-next-door-type stuff.
After a citizen or CMPD officer files a complaint, or after the inspector comes across a violation on his or her own, the inspector makes a series of judgment calls to resolve the issue.
There were 1,189 cases of graffiti that were dealt with by the city agency in the 2014 fiscal year alone, and Curt White, the northeast service area leader for Code Enforcement, says the overwhelming majority of that graffiti was removed. "From time to time people might call things graffiti that aren't so we won't clean that up, but most of the time these [complaints] are real," White says.
When it comes to identifying graffiti for removal, they always refer to the city's municipal code, but it doesn't make the process crystal-clear every time. "[Graffiti] is hard to define," White says. "It's easier to distinguish it by what it's not."
The code is pretty specific and makes it a point to leave as few gray areas as possible. It even has an article that exempts sidewalk chalk and any water-soluble markings used on paved surfaces so that nobody ever starts fining children for playing hopscotch. It would be a move fit for Barney Fife, but it could happen in real life, too. So the code is clear: no fining anyone for playing with sidewalk chalk.
Posters and stickers do, however, fall in one of the few gray areas, even if they say something controversial like SmokeyC's. Division six, section 10-213 of the city's municipal code doesn't specifically include a policy for them, but slapping one up may still be an offense depending on where it is. Spray-painting the images would merit a fine but posters and stickers definitely don't qualify as graffiti.