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City’s skewed priorities punish gifted street artists

On a chilly walk home from Kleinhans Music Hall in late January, with the sounds of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s tribute to Mozart still ringing in my ears, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a strange tile embedded into the center of Porter Avenue.

On closer inspection, I saw that it was an illustrated fragment of poetry, set against a blue background and titled “Toynbee Idea.” The poem – which I later discovered to be an excerpt from a short story by Ray Bradbury – seemed to capture something about the ascending optimism in this city: “Oh, future’s bright and beauteous spires, arise!”

It was a strange little moment of unexpected beauty, a burst of color and poetry interrupting an otherwise routine trip across a simple city crosswalk.

Weeks later, when I returned with a photographer to capture the tile for a story, I found only a series of deep gouges the width of spaghetti noodles in the pavement. It had been scratched out, apparently a victim of Buffalo’s Department of Public Works.

Disappointed, I went looking for another tile that had been a familiar and comforting site for many years at the intersection of Allen Street and Delaware Avenue. It too had vanished.

And in the coming weeks, I started noticing more of these “Toynbee tiles” – a particularly ingenious form of street art, in which vinyl tiles are adhered to the street’s surface with black tape and pressed into the pavement by passing cars and trucks until the tape wears away to reveal the finished product. A couple of weeks ago, a gorgeous tile appeared in a section of the city I’m reluctant to name for fear it might be targeted for removal. They are one of the most intriguing aspects of a street art scene that had until recently been moribund.

As a city resident and bicyclist schooled in the ways of dodging massive potholes, dangerously sunken manhole covers and other perils, it strikes me as odd that the removal of unobtrusive street tiles would rank as a priority on the city’s endless list of infrastructure problems. The city put off weeks of requests to talk to DPW commissioner Steve Stepniak about its street art removal policies, finally issuing the short statement on the subject noting that “any unauthorized placement of art is subject to removal by the city.”

Clearly it is well within Buffalo’s rights to remove illegal art. But these tiles are entirely innocuous.

I’ve run across stretches of sidewalk and pavement spray-painted a kaleidoscope of colors by construction crews and city workers. These atrocious bits of legal graffiti somehow remain untouched while artists’ personal expression on city streets is systematically scratched out. Something in this organization of priorities is amiss.

This issue is part and parcel of City Hall’s historical blindness to matters of contemporary artistic expression. While other cities have established legal graffiti walls that have become major tourist draws, Buffalo continues to drag its feet on public art proposals and punish graffiti and other street artists as unredeemable pariahs who offer nothing of value to the city or the lives of its citizens.

Given the recent spate of new street art here, this is clearly untrue. As City Hall reluctantly re-enters the business of supporting its cultural community financially, it would do well to toss a bone to the artists working on its streets.