It's obvious to me that the punitive approach will never work with graffiti because kids simply will never process the consequences of their actions at that level. Writing "I love Alex" on the wall in the 6th grade bathroom will never seem like a big deal to a kid. And it shouldn't. Because it's not.
But in Texas you can be charged with felony graffiti crimes that theoretically could land you in prison right alongside murderers and robbers.
Even so, everywhere you go in Texas cities you'll see graffiti. The "tuffer" laws haven't stopped it at all.
Over the past few years I've tracked how different jurisdictions have handled graffiti in Texas and beyond, and I think Corpus Christi is taking the very best possible approach: They've bought a truck to powerwash the graffiti off.
For some it's a political thing. Or maybe it's gangs and turf. But bottom line, graff artists of all stripes tag public spaces for one, fundamental reason: For their "tags" to be seen by others.
If, when graffiti is reported, the city comes by that day and powerwashes it off, pretty soon the fun wears off. Nearly every graff artist is young person, after all, if the tag won't stay up you can always smoke pot and play video games instead.
According to the Corpus Christi Caller Times ("Who you gonna call: Graffitibusters," Aug. 6):
In June, the police department knew of 32 tagging crews, with an estimated 100 members, according to Ben Teed, an officer with the Juvenile Enforcement Team. The tagging seems to be from rival crews looking to outdo one another and claim domain.So let's walk through the cost-benefit analysis for a moment. Let's pretend that it was possible to arrest, prosecute and convict all 100 of the "taggers" in Corpus, and that each had done enough damage to be prosecuted with a state jail felony, a two year stint. At $16,000 per year incarceration costs, that's $32,000 per tagger, times 100, is $3.2 million, not including costs for police, courts, jails, defense counsel, etc., which might boost the cost, say, to the $4 million neighborhood or higher, by the time it's said and done (if it were even possible).
By comparison, the Graffitibuster truck cost $77,000. Even if it costs twice that to staff and maintain it, you're talking about less than four percent of the cost of dealing with graffiti through incarceration.
Even better, you're doing what the business owners really want, which is to get rid of the graffiti! So you get them off your back, the city looks nicer, and you've saved the taxpayers a ton of money.
All the cops in Corpus will never outwit those 100 taggers, I promise you. Cops are busy people with lots of things on their mind, and those kids have all the time in the world to plot and plan how to get away with their antics. Take away their incentive - for their tags to be seen - and soon enough they'll lose interest and go on to something else.
Oh, and one other thing. When a kid IS caught and convicted for graffiti writing, IMO incarceration is a foolish option and there should be only one acceptable punishment: Working shifts washing walls or else staffing the Graffitibuster truck.
UPDATE: A commenter points out this article from the Abilene paper describing a program where the juvenile probation department there sends out youth to clean up graffiti as part of their community service obligations.
MORE: Just ran across a recent Dallas news item about post-Katrina graffit in New Orleans, declaring, "Hurricane Katrina seemed to unloose the closeted spray paint taggers among the ranks of the military and animal rescue communities." Some folks don't want to wash away the tags left by rescue workers, considering them an ironic "mark of distinction."
AND MORE: Here's a neat idea, especially for a city with a deep tagger talent pool. Even if you're going to powerwash off most graffiti, perhaps you could throw the taggers a bone and give them their own street! In Hanoi, Vietnam, several prominent tagging crews did this with the building owners' permission, who also took part in formally judging the works. (Reminds me of the youth center in Wichita Falls that invited graffiti artists to paint in public spaces.) Might be a neat idea in a club district or something.
FINAL UPDATE: Okay, this remark in response this post from Dirty Third Streets was so over the top I had to add it to the accolades in Grits' sidebar. Thanks, Dirty!
/Photo credit: Dirty Third Streets.