Monday, July 28, 2008

Allowing invited graff best way to reduce unwanted graffiti

Last summer Grits featured a series proposing a three-pronged approach to graffiti enforcement based on restorative justice principles consisting of enforcement, rapid cleanup and provision of space for invited graffiti art. Everybody does the enforcement part, or tries; some municipalities have embraced the rapid cleanup idea; however scarce few have committed resources to providing spaces for invited art. In my view, all three legs of the stool must be in place to significantly reduce uninvited graffiti.

While writing that series, I was struck by the lack of significant public policy research on the subject given how long graffiti has been with us and how much the practice costs taxpayers. So I was pleased to see a report from the Denver Post ("New study on graffiti, crime correlation," July 20) about a criminologist's project to research graffiti and evaluate the effectiveness of government responses:
[Criminologist Noah] Fritz, a former crime analyst at an Arizona police department, will be the first one to say he doesn't have all the answers.

He knows that graffiti in Denver runs the gamut from obvious gang communication to the artful mural on the back of the garage. He knows that graffiti here, and probably nationally, is largely misunderstood and that painting over it sometimes dares the taggers into a cat-and-mouse game.

What he hopes to probe -- with the help of his criminology students -- is: how graffiti in a neighborhood correlates to crime (he'll layer graffiti-defacing maps over crime data); why do kids do it (he'll interview 18-year-olds who may know taggers and compile personal stories) and whether there's anything the city can do about it (a communal graffiti wall? A celebration of graffiti as art?) that would deter taggers from defacing private property.

Last fall, about 25 Metro students walked the perimeters of the census blocks included in the project, taking pictures of everything, even the smallest of graffiti scratches. ...

The students picked the blocks scientifically and are taking the summer and most of next school year to analyze the types of graffiti. Then they will look at possible crime correlations.

Fritz also wants to see if the graffiti elimination project underway is working. Most of the mapping research was completed last October. Fritz wants to see whether this October there are fewer marks.

"I think it's important, when a government entity puts resources into a project, to see if their strategies are effective," Fritz said. "We always try to be more efficient, but we should be thinking more about whether they are effective."
Key to addressing graffiti (it cannot be "solved," only managed) is recognizing Fritz's important observation that removal alone potentially "dares the taggers into a cat-and-mouse game." As Proximo from Dallas Sidebar put it, there is a "subversive component" to tagging - an element of youthful rebellion that drives the activity. As I wrote this spring, "Playing cat and mouse with law enforcement feeds into a cycle of gamesmanship taggers enjoy, and bored teens with a spray can will inevitably win those matchups just because there are too many of them and police have better things to do."

That's why I think creating invited graffiti spaces must be part of the solution. Indeed, it's often the solution private property owners come up with themselves after feuding with graff writers for years. From the Post:

Mike Allard said he thinks he has found one solution.

The manager of Headed West, a tobacco shop on South Broadway, battled the "gangbangers in Englewood" for months as they tagged the sides of his store. Businesses are fined if they don't paint or wash over graffiti in three days.

So a year and a half ago, he hired some former graffiti artists to draw a mural on both sides. Allard is now battling the city about signage laws but says the store hasn't been tagged since the drawings went up.

"If you don't consider the sides of our building art, then I don't think you can understand art," Allard said.

Fritz and Allard are on the right track, but Fritz's idea of a communal graffiti wall to me doesn't go far enough. One wall, after all, won't provide enough space for a long-term solution.

Mainstreaming graff artists with talent should be an overt goal of public graffiti policy. Make me philosopher king and I believe cities should have civilian graffiti coordinators who manage cleanup crews made up of probationers and coordinate making public and private spots available for invited graffiti art.

Our current approach to graffiti essentially punishes victims. Taggers are seldom caught or prosecuted, so the main way municipalities enforce anti-graffiti ordinances is by fining property owners, essentially victimizing them a second time.

I drive by spots every day that are either covered with graff or where the city is constantly painting over new graffiti - overpasses, storm drains, utility boxes in the right of way, light poles, backsides of road signs. We routinely see graff on these spots, anyway. In most of these cases I'd prefer Mr. Allard's solution - inviting graff artists to do a nicer, more significant piece that will "ride" for much longer than typical outlaw graff.

In many cities, authorities have identified the most prolific local taggers, though it's virtually impossible to arrest them. But knowledge of who they are opens up opportunities to solicit invited graff. Bottom line, in an era when graphic arts skills are in high demand, graff artists with talent should be brought out of the shadows and encouraged, where possible, instead of shamed and prosecuted.

A local graffiti coordinator could assist private interests to hook up with graffiti artists, inviting higher quality graff to preemptively fend off more routine, destructive tagging. Businesses whose walls are tagged repeatedly, homeowners with fences facing the street, utility companies whose boxes are constantly defaced - after years of scrubbing or painting over unwanted graff, I imagine quite a few property owners may be ready to decide, "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

In its most fully developed form, perhaps a citywide web-based database could be accumulated of spots where property owners want to invite graffiti and graff artists could submit a sketch of what they want to do for approval by the landowner.

None of this will eliminate tags used for gang communications; for that brand of tagger, the rapid cleanup component and the risk of criminal prosecution remain the only viable tools. But given the immense sums cities routinely spend on graffiti cleanup now with little result, to the extent more artistically inclined graff writers can be diverted to invited venues it would save taxpayers money, reduce the volume of criminal graff, and increase the amount of public art in our cities. That result seems like a win-win all around.

See related Grits' posts on graffiti law and policy solutions:


Anonymous said...

If there's a smarter-not-harder way to reduce graffiti, then I'm all for it. But I'm not sure I agree with your position that providing graffiti walls, as it were, is the solution. It seems like you're proceeding from the premise that much graffiti is artistic, and there simply needs to be an outlet for that artistic expression. In my experience, virtually all the graffiti I see in San Antonio (and it seems to be increasing, a lot), consists of indecipherable scrawls. I don't see anything that looks like a kid seeking an artistic outlet. Sure, there's the occasional mural, depending on what part of town you're in, but those are obviously done by people with an artistic bent. The scribbles that show up on my apartment building on a weekly basis aren't done by the same hand. I'd love to know what the solution for the vandalism-oriented graffiti is, but I doubt it's if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-em.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Look at it this way: Right now SA is trying the enforcement only approach and you're describing the results - it doesn't work.

There are various sorts of graffiti that don't lend themselves to a one size fits all description or solution. I can't speak so much for SA, but in Austin, Houston, Dallas, Corpus, and elsewhere there are a significant number of more artistic graff writers who do a LOT of wall writing and posting handbills, etc..

More importantly, if there's a more substantial invited graff mural, the workaday taggers who're just scrawling signs tend to leave it alone. Put a graff mural at the site where you routinely see scrawls, and I bet that person would move to another spot. (See the example of Mr. Allard in the post.)

Bottom line: Some graff writers are motivated by self expression and others by anti-social vandalism. The former are the ones for whom providing alternatives might help. For the latter, all the legal penalties are still there if it's possible to catch them. Usually it's not, though, so the only available option is rapid cleanup. There's no downside, in other words, to adding the invited graffiti strategy to the repertoire.

Anonymous said...

Another San Antonio opinion here--it seems to me that the most aggravating graffiti is not on public property or even commercial property--it's the tags and "art" on private homes (not just fences but someone's house). I wonder if graffiti artists could work within their community to reduce this type of tagging, which surely creates a huge amount of ill-will and negative public opinion. I do believe in the value of free public art and often photograph great examples of stencil graffiti. However, a name spray-painted in three foot-high letters across our back porch just pisses me off.