For starters, following the restorative justice model, such an approach might focus on making the victim whole, which at a minimum must include cleaning up vandalized property. In many jurisdictions the property owner is legally responsible for removing graffiti, no matter who put it there. That's not fair.
On the other hand, a restorative policy seeks to make whole everyone involved and prevent the violation from recurring. Some youth, as a Grits commenter eloquently put it, are themselves using a spray can to record their "cries in the night." After writing this post, I was struck by how police in Corpus Christi apparently know exactly who most of their local taggers are, claiming to have identified 100 individual taggers who run in 32 separate "crews" (which probably overglorifies such groups).
That made me think - if you know who these kids are, why not deal with them directly? I don't mean negotiate, though there may be a little of that over the use of public spaces (as there already is informally now). But that kind of intelligence gathering about taggers by police represents a significant deployment of police resources, and the tactic shows little effectiveness at solving the problem.
No doubt there is a significant gang element to tagging (just like with rap music), but that doesn't sully it universally as an art form. Gangs use art and symbolism because they are powerful. Why cede them that terrain? Why not fight them over it? Why not deploy resources to channel artists in positive directions and use symbols in ways that promote community instead of destroys it?
What if graffiti were for the most part taken away from criminal law enforcement, and the resources used by police to identify and monitor every last tagger in Corpus Christi were put to more productive uses? What might that look like?
Perhaps cities could try a civilian instead of criminal graffiti enforcement approach, combined with incentives for promoting art and artists, housed in Parks or Public Works instead of the police department.
The civilian agency would include professional artists or art educators on the management team and carry out the following mandate: a) teach art to kids to give youth an outlet, b) identify and train talented artists to channel toward careers in graphic arts, c) identify and secure public, private and renewable spots for graffiti artists, d) manage clean up crews for businesses and homeowners who receive unwanted tags, partially staffed by juvenile probationers, and e) use local Arts in Public Places funds to promote youth artists in the pursuit of the above-goals.
Property rights violators would still be arrested, but graffiti arrests would basically be a way to identify a talent pool to steer into the civilian program (with participation enforced through probation, especially for repeat offenders).
Meanwhile, in the new information era graphic art talents are more in demand than ever. Maybe it's time society started to view graffiti artists not as mere lawbreakers but as creative, marketable human capital? Perhaps it would be smarter to spend public resources not to maximally punish graffiti, but to identify emerging artists and invest in their development?
That approach would value arts and artists and seek to preserve rather than suppress youthful talent, but remain focused on discouraging and cleaning up graffiti performed as vandalism without the consent of the property owner.
Whaddya think? Repeat arrests and longer sentences haven't helped. Is it time for a "smart on crime" approach toward graffiti? And is this what a smarter approach would look like?
See prior, related Grits posts:
- Graffiti solutions: A cost-benefit analysis
- Paint responsibly: Museum offers hands-on graffiti exhibit
- Graffiti on the brain and around the world
- Digital graffiti, or, Is there something to a wall that wants us to write on it?
- R.I.P. Victor Montano: Houston graffiti artist
- Can you be arrested for public knitting?
- Out of our minds: Isn't felony graffiti overkill for sixth graders?
- Charging graffiti as a state jail felony?