Sunday, March 01, 2009

Invited graffiti: Solution or enabling for unwanted tags?

I've believed for a while now that municipal graffiti management (and it can only ever be managed, never eliminated) must involve three prongs: 1) Enforcement, with number of arrests more important than length of punishment, 2) Rapid cleanup (at taxpayers' expense, so crime victims aren't punished again by the state), and 3) More invited graffiti in both public and private venues.

Here's a roundup of recent news and blog items focused on that oft-ignored third theme of invited graffiti, which has long been the most underutilized part of that three-pronged approach:

ATX Graffiti has pictures of legal graffiti commissioned for the SXSW music festival on East 5th Street in East Austin. Clearly more talented, prolific graff writers are willing to put up more elaborate, creative work when they know the project will ride for a while. I'll bet it won't get defacd as often as the blank wall, either.

In Corpus Christi, high school students were invited to create graffiti-style spray paint murals at La Retama Park.

A UK community has given a ten-year old girl the run of the town to paint graffiti murals, though when you see her art you can understand why. It's not just her, though; the same town allows a great deal of more elaborate, invited graffiti from quality artists.

From the always wonderful Subtopia, check out invited graffiti on "blast walls" installed by the US military in Baghdad, which makes the landscape more hospitable and also helps prevent subversive, anti-American graffiti.

In San Francisco, anti-graffiti zealots on the city council tried to pass an ordinance "that would define what constitutes a legal mural and where it may be painted." In other words, they think it will reduce the amount of outlaw art if they over-regulate legal, invited and commissioned art, which heretofore, presumably, had not been a significant source of concern. It seems absurd to have to say so, but you can't regulate your way out of a graffiti problem: It's already an illegal activity.

At the NY Times City Room blog, Sewell Chan has an excellent post reviewing a new book by a sociologist who's been studying graffiti for 30 years and believes that, “In its purest form, graffiti is a democratic art form that revels in the American Dream.” He also describes instances where graff writers allied interests with property owners, including one Brooklynite who was "eventually embraced by property owners who saw his style — with large, neat letters, quite separate from the spray-painted bold colors and complicated letter styles that are more common in graffiti — as a useful ornamentation for their storefronts."

Finally, where do we draw the line when defining graffiti? Unwanted spray paint or etching into glass is one thing, but how much can you credibly talk about "property damage" when discussing messages left in chalk on the sidewalk? A Flagstaff, AZ city ordinance treats non-permanent chalking the same as more permanent graffiti.

See prior Grits posts related to invited graffiti:

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Allowing it is fine for those that WANT that crap on their property. But those that don't? Your article insinuates that you support this as a method to prevent graffiti. This method doesn't do that. It's air brushed art, to be sure, but you're suggesting communities be inundated with it, in order to prevent law breakers from ... breaking the law. Puh-lease.

I don't want it on my house or my fence. I'd bet if you cane the little shits Chinese style, they'd think twice about doing it again.

YOUR solution is to have them paint a mural and maybe some little bastard won't paint "big hairy snatch" over top of it.

It's my property, and my tax money is supposed to be going to law enforcement to protect me AND my property.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

5:52 writes, "Your article insinuates that you support this as a method to prevent graffiti"

I didn't "insinuate" anything, I advocated this as one of three prongs of a graffiti management strategy - combined with front-end enforcement and rapid cleanup.

They've tried jacking up the penalties, fining property owners, etc., and the enforcement-only approach doesn't work.

What's your alternative suggestion? Do you think police are obliged to post a guard outside your house? That's what your final sentence sounds like you expect.

Passion and Lore said...

Anonymous, unfortunately the federal courts would prohibit any type of caning for graffiti vandals.

But at least this kind of ghetto trash tends to kill off its own. These idiots who vandalize will either end up in jail for something else or die at the hands of another banger. So there is justice, even if its indirect.

Anonymous said...

The "if you can't beat them, join them approach" does not work with crime or social problems. The first post was right on the money.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

So what does work, 7:56? Enlighten us. The tactics used against graffiti now aren't getting the job done.

P&L, you're just trolling. Try speaking to the topic of the post, if you insist on commenting here, instead of just spewing pointless bile.

Anonymous said...

I don't know the solution, but I can theorize with the best of them. I DO know that "come paint my house with a picture of the virgin marry" isn't an option.

Caning would do it. I'm not advocating that (I know it would never be allowed) but if you agree that it'd be an effective form of punishment then there's possibly another effective form of punishment as well.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone ever considered that nothing works?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

9:32, what if the city offered to let them paint the Virgin Mary on a freeway pylon so they didn't bother doing it on your house?

Combine that with rapid cleanup where it's not invited (and enforcement on the rare occasions when police catch them), and you drive some of it to more desirable spots.

People didn't like kids skateboarding on the sidewalks and ultimately built them skate ramps in the city parks - it's the same idea. They're gonna do it, so give them a place where it won't impose on others.

You're wrong that there's some penalty like caning high enough to deter it. It's already a felony at pretty low thresholds. What additional punishment would you suggest?

9:53, is right. "Nothing works" if you mean completely solving the problem. Creating space for invited graffiti won't completely "solve" the problem. Graffiti can only be managed, not eliminated, and there's no harm and perhaps some benefit to trying more than one approach, particularly when the one-trick pony enforcement-only method we've relied on for years clearly isn't satisfying the public.

Anonymous said...

Why can't people disagree in a civil manner anymore? A person who disagrees is spewing bile? Trolling? It's your blog, of course Mr. Grits, and I suppose if people don't like it they shouldn't comment. I guess I'm just disappointed by your behavior. Your tone is condescending and sarcastic and it makes you sound petty. I'm sure many might think that you are spewing bile. Civil discourse seems to be a lost art.
Now to the topic. People who tag trample all over the property owners rights. I happen to to treasure the rights afforded me by being an American citizen. I understand that along with our rights come responsibilities. Our individual rights extend only to the point to the point, where n exercising our rights, we not not violate those of our neighbors. We are raising generations of people who simply do not understand or care about the basic principles upon which our country was founded. We are lowering our standards in this society to accept nearly anything. Letting someone tag another's property removes any accountability. They tag, the city cleans so of course they will continue. I don't care if we have a hard time catching taggers, we do not have to support them. We are doing a poor job of teaching our children how to be responsible citizens. Grits, you say you were not implying that you support allowing grafitti as a means of prevention and then you turn around and tell a blogger that he must be suggesting placing armed guards around his property to protect it. Maybe neither of you were suggesting or implying anything, just expressing a thought. It is normal for most people to to feel strongly about their property and to feel angry and violated when it is defiled in anyway. If we invite grafitti we are supporting behvior that should be completely unacceptable. I own over 1,000 acres of property. Hunters are constantly cutting fences on my land and that all around me. Because they are hard to catch, doesn't mean any of us intend on supporting criminal trespassers by inviting them onto our property. I expect the game warden and sheriff's office to continue to patrol and the land owners, and or their employees to visit the property at strange hours, with no established routines to assist in catching trespassers. My mother has always said that when you mix manure with ice cream it ruins the ice cream, but doesn't hurt the manure at all. I'm not lowering my standards to accomodate and accept manure.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

7:20, sorry to disappoint you with the level of discourse. P&L has been leaving similarly bilious comments on quite a few different Grits posts lately, and I suppose I'm becoming fed up with what I view as persistently trollish and nonproductive behavior.

To the topic at hand, I'm willing to bet you are much more successful at scaring away poachers on your 1,000 acres than any Texas municipality will ever be at catching/preventing graffiti in 1,000 acres of its central city. If those examples were remotely comparable, there'd be no need for this discussion.

Bottom line, the question is what you value more: Punishing offenders or reducing the amount of graffiti on the walls. If you value punishment more, even if it's rare and ineffective, then you are likely in the majority. Personally, I'd rather see police spending their time on more important things, have less unwanted graffiti around us and more public art.

As far as suggesting that 5:52 wanted armed guards at his property, how else are we to interpret the declaration that "It's my property, and my tax money is supposed to be going to law enforcement to protect me AND my property"? They could never hire enough cops to achieve that goal vis a vis graffiti. For this person, and perhaps for you, judging by your comments, it's better to wallow in failure than to "lower your standards" to accommodate others.

Finally, you wrote one thing that's flat out wrong that deserves correction, that "They tag, the city cleans so of course they will continue." That's a misconception, as demonstrated famously by New York City's example with their subways. Rapid cleanup over time prevents graff from continuing because it will migrate to locations where it can "ride" (i.e., be seen) longer, which is also why providing public spaces could work.

I'm not advocating an end to enforcement (see the first paragraph of this post). But if you're mad about graffiti, you're mad about outcomes under existing punitive laws and an ineffective, enforcement-only approach. So try something else or stop complaining when failed strategies continue to fail.

Robert Boyd said...

I have a perspective I'd like to add--I am a professional earning a good salary in my mid-40s, but I spent a little time in my early 20s doing graffiti. I was inspired by some of the amazing artwork that was being done on subways to try it here in our city. I intentionally picked properties that seemed abandoned or gray concrete stretches like freeway overpasses. From my current age, I have mixed feelings about what I did. I shouldn't have defaced property, but the art I did was good and, in my own worthless opinion, were an aesthetic improvement over what had been there.

I think this is a motive for at least some graffiti artists. Given this, legal graffiti areas, whether on private property or public property, would reduce some illegal graffiti. Not all--there are graffiti artists and taggers who do it for the thrill of doing something illegal (which was never my goal), out of an adolescent destructive urge (just like the kids who knock over mailboxes and tip cows, really), or as part of a gang thing.

But for those graffitists whose goal is to make big bold art on a visible public wall, legal spots would be welcome. And considering the miles of soul-crushing gray concrete we have in this city, it seems like there are numerous spots that could be "legalized."

Anonymous said...

Sorry. None of the photos in this post meet my definition of art or beauty. I would NOT like to see "the Virgin Mary on a freeway pylon." I'd rather have the "soul-crushing gray concrete." And they can ALSO stay away from my house.

People should not put spray paint on a surface uninvited, and everyone agrees providing free space for graffiti "artists" will not stop the vandals from putting their version of beauty anywhere they want to.

With reference to the title of the post, it's like a game of "Where's Waldo?" Gang members are extremely adept at hiding and finding gang messages ("tagging") in their artwork. It's dangerous. The Virgin Mary would be wearing a Latin Kings crown. Believe me.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

8:32 writes, "None of the photos in this post meet my definition of art or beauty."

Then IMO you have a very narrow and philistine definition of "art" and "beauty." (If you didn't click through, see especially the legal graff/murals on Baghdad blast walls and El Azteca Stadium in Mexico City.

Also, nobody ever said "providing free space for graffiti 'artists' ... [would] stop the vandals." That's why I've advocated front-end enforcement and rapid cleanup of uninvited graffti as complementary tactics, aiming over time to drive graff away from uninvited areas and toward more acceptable and harmless ones.

The Taoist military theorist Sun Tzu said never surround your enemy on four sides: Surround them on three so their only choice is to move in the most advantageous direction.

As for gang-related images, most of that is not among the more artsy type graff, plus the city can always powerwash it off the public areas if they use gang symbols or break other community decency standards. For that matter, if gang symbols are so well hidden that nobody can tell what they are, who really cares and what's so terribly "dangerous" about it, anyway?

Anonymous said...

I had to long of a comment. Which I didn't knowof when I wrote it. So this is what I will leave. Compromised to speech or press in the U.S. I am going to buy some paint and go to the smithsonion and write it on the constitution and see if they make me compromise to only writing it in so many words on a lesser degree of damage. Maybe unread text of the president. Nobody has read it so maybe I can still deface something. Legally! Why right anything when you have to compromise it. The WHOLE truth only when law dictates what they want to hear as the truth. Maybe it is the governments whole truth. O.K. well I am going to the free country without the contrites of society following or having another govt. program to breed there.

Graffiti Task Force said...

The world belongs to those who make things happen. To solve the graffiti problem, the legislature must allow SOME graffiti acts to be treated not as a crime but as a civil case, much like a parking ticket.

Equal justice for graffiti vandals is the first step. Then, a police investigator who is not an eye-witness may offer credible testimony to identify in an informal hearing who is responsible for the graffiti. If a judge accepts the evidence, accountability for bad behavior follows. At that point, Restorative Justice is an option.