It reminds me of the bromide that only crazy people do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result.
Corpus Christi city officials (not to mention local judges and prosecutors) inarguably have taken the harshest stances in the state against graffiti, focusing large amounts of police resources on the problem and fairly routinely seeking felony penalties (a felony can be charged for any graffiti on school and churches or when there's $1,500 worth of damage or more) that have sent graff writers to state prison.
Political discourse in Corpus regarding graffiti has gotten absurdly over the top. Indeed, to judge by local rhetoric, many of its citizens seem to think it's a bigger worry than Mexican drug cartels or violent crime.
Take a look at the truculent reader comments following a recent story in the Caller Times about a repeat tagger's latest felony graffiti arrest: "Next time he's caught tagging, someone please shoot him," one reader suggested. Another chimed in, "Great, my taxes will pay for this idiot's food and board for the next two years? Can I just buy a box of bullets instead and save us all some money?" Five out of 40 commenters expressed gloating pleasure at the notion the 19-year old might be sexually assaulted in prison.
Such comments typify a mounting public sentiment (or perhaps more accurately, a "mob mentality") in Corpus developing for the last 2-3 years about graffiti, with rhetoric and draconian proposals coming from that city's leaders that make the rest of the state look like spray paint loving hippies.
Perhaps it's not too great a stretch to wonder if some of these comments might indicate a form of localized mass hysteria, which research has shown "often occur[s] where people find themselves in an intolerable situation that they're not able to influence or otherwise complain about." That description perfectly fits the situation property owners find themselves in, particularly since many municipal laws actually punish the victims of graffiti crimes.
But ironically, the more Corpus Christi pursued a John-Wayne-style, tuffer-than-thou, enforcement-only approach, something counterintuitive happened: Playing cat and mouse with young punks empowered and emboldened them within their outcast subculture. As a result, the city's tagging problem worsened instead of improved. Most of Corpus Christi's tagging isn't gang-related, but rather comes from competing youth tagging crews ensconced in oppositional hip-hop or skateboarding cultures. So rather than scaring them away from the activity, Corpus Christi's approach played right into their cultural predispositions by confirming, in real life, that their penny-ante activities qualify as gangsta.
As a result, after bringing down the full force of its criminal justice apparatus on graff writing only worsened the problem, now the city will try its luck in the civil courts. The Corpus City Council is now considering whether to launch civil suits against parents of graff-writing teens, a proposal being copied from Los Angeles (where obviously they've got the graffiti problem completely solved - let's definitely mimic their approach!).
But of course, authorities never catch the perpetrators in the vast majority of graffiti incidents, and the parents' inability to contain their kid is how we got to this point in the first place. Maybe some just didn't try, but I'll bet more frequently when you find a teen getting in trouble repeatedly for graff, you'll also find a frustrated parent who's at the end of their rope. Suing already-embattled parents doesn't seem like the way to go; it's a symbolic but not a substantive response.
There are only a relative handful of people engaged in tagging in Corpus and the cops know who at least a signficant plurality of them are. But the city's relationship with these youth is entirely oppositional, playing directly into the dynamic that drew them to tagging in the first place. In reality, because police and prison resources are limited, cities can't win the enforcement-only game. Youth with a burning desire to write on the walls will do so, which is why I've frequently suggested giving them at least some approved spaces for the purpose.
If we want youth to stop doing graffiti, harsh enforcement empirically won't do the trick by itself or else Corpus Christi by now would be graffiti free. Stopping graf additionally requires developing a deeper understanding of why youth are doing it in the first place and providing them with alternative outlets for destructive energy. That's where Corpus and many other cities have failed.
I recall a remarkable story published in the Washington Post a couple of years ago about local officials' reaction to a graffiti problem in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia,
This Saudi leader understood a point made well recently by art critic Rex Thomas in an excellent essay,
Abo-Umara, 45, said young men like Alwani should not be held accountable until officials are sure they've done right by local youth.
"What have we done for young people? Have we asked them what they need or want?" said Abo-Umara, wearing a flowing white head scarf and long robe. "Until I talk to them and find out why they are scribbling all over Jiddah and do my part in offering them the services we're supposed to provide, then I can't punish or criticize them."
True to his word, Abo-Umara held a two-day workshop called "What Do Youth Want From Jiddah?" in July, shortly after his meeting with Alwani. More than 200 young men and women attended, on separate days, and their list of demands included cinemas, public libraries, and music and art centers.
The young women asked for private beaches for women and girls, for at least widows and divorced women to be permitted to drive, and for boys who harass them to be fined.
Both groups requested sports facilities, of which there are very few in Saudi Arabia.
Abo-Umara was able to implement one demand immediately: walls dedicated to graffiti.
While street art is a fresh, interesting language, it should not be mistaken for the language of knowledge or power. Instead it is the language of a city that is weak and divided. We must hear what graffiti says to us as a society, and retake our physical urban character as a common, broad place that offers security, sacred, and special places for all citizens, not just the privileged few ... By ignoring graffiti art, we postpone our treatment of the urban malaise. By confronting it and bringing it into the mainstream, we can better treat our urban condition and improve the city as a dwelling place for the benefit of all.I realize that by suggesting we need an "understanding" of why young people break the law, I'm opening myself up to stereotyping as a "liberal" who just wants to hand the criminals a teddy bear and send them on their way. (Untrue, but by now I'm used to it.) The fact is, though, that Corpus has been pursuing the tuffest criminal enforcement tactics in the state on graffiti and by all accounts the policy has miserably failed, which is why the focus is now shifting to the civil courts. If folks actually want to solve the problem instead of just complaining about it (something I often think may not be the case), at the end of the day different tactics will be required.
For example, most prosecutions for graffiti in Corpus Christi are juveniles. But are youth getting adequate opportunities to pursue art in school, or has art class been de-prioritized in favor of the TAKS test, as has been the case in much of the rest of the state?
Grieved property owners notoriously (and understandably) aren't interested in listening to what graffiti writers have to say, but IMO that's a prerequisite for finding a satisfactory way to reduce the problem in the long-term. (Graff can only ever be managed; it's not practically possible to 100% end the practice, which dates to ancient times). I understand why folks in Corpus are angry, though I cannot justify the hysteric vitriol in the most extreme examples above. But anger won't help nearly as much as just buying a second graffiti cleanup truck and investing in local opportunities for youth as an alternative to merely prosecuting them.