Monday, June 29, 2009

Gittin' tuff on graffiti spawns more of it in Corpus Christi

Threats and punishments from authority figures only go so far when dealing with rebellious teens, but in Corpus Christi, officials believe they can ramp up penalties high enough for graffiti to scare youth away from the behavior. So far, though, git-tuff policies have had exactly the opposite effect.

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,

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.

This Saudi leader understood a point made well recently by art critic Rex Thomas in an excellent essay,
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.


Anonymous said...

But isn't that always thecase when dealing with small level activity. things like graffiti laws are aimed at the more youthful and they are the ones that need "status' amongst peers

Anonymous said...

If there are so few grafiti vandals getting caught, then I think the state can easily afford to give the ones who are caught life sentences.

I really think it would deter some vandals, but at any rate, it would give a lot of us some great satisfaction.

gravyrug said...

11:51, would you really derive satisfaction from imprisoning someone for life for graffiti? That strikes me as a pretty twisted set of moral priorities.

I suspect that it's just this sort of attitude that inspired the Bible's "vengeance is mine, saith the Lord." The need to take vengeance out of the hands of the mob mentality is vital to a working society.

GraffHead said...

Is graffiti really hurting anyone?

There are so many other important issues that a city should focus on.

Anonymous said...

Graffhead... that's a typical excuse I hear from not just graffiti vandals but all the criminals who think someone is worse than them.

For the record, graffiti doesn't hurt anyone, vandalism does.

Brody said...

I lived in Washington DC for 6 years, spending quite a bit of my "free" time as a neighborhood activist on issues like graffiti. I've gone round and round on this issue in the depth that one would expect from an urban setting. Hell, just google "Borf" or "Disco Dan" for an example of the longstanding issues on graffiti.

Here's my take- first, I abhorr the term "graf." It does too much to legitimize something that is unequivocally vandalism, and often a significant financial burden on its victim. It hurts the victims who pay to clean it up just as surely as breaking windows or stealing cash registers hurts the victims. Now, i won't dispute the fact that some of it is indeed art, and in many cases far better pop-art than Warhol or Lichtenstein or Pollock. It's often quite inventive in both its placement, themes, and execution. It is, however, inventive property destruction.

The only solution is that which Grits advocates- rapid, certian, and inexpensive removal. There was one apartment complex a few blocks from my house that got hit by gang taggers every day for weeks. They kept a bucket of paint which matched the building color on hand. Every morning when I went to the Metro it was tagged, every evening when I came home it was painted over. That kept up for about a month, and then the tagging completely stopped.

And it stopped in part because of solution number 2- an outlet for youthful creativity and public display of art. The apartment simply donated the cunk of wall that was being tagged repeatedly to the school down the block. Students came and put in a 20' x 20' mural over the location which was being tagged- and the tagging STAYED stopped.

In DC the first part of this was accomplished by what's known as the "mayor's service center"- a one stop internet site that you can order city services. I used it to get a crosswalk re-striped, streetlights repaired, a couch someone had dumped hauled off, and graffiti on an abandoned building removed. That's all it took- a few keystrokes, and the graffiti was gone within 3 days of being placed. The cleaning crew came out with a power washer and took it off. Then they walked aound the neighborhood and took off two other tags that had sprung up in the meantime. DC government services get lots of well deserved flak, but they've got that part down pat.

And secondly, cities need to loosen up about some places where graffiti truly doesn't hurt anyone. The small town in North Texas I grew up in had a train trestle that got tagged constantly, and painted over twice a year. The once or twice I can remember a curse word being put up it was gone in two days. Many Texas towns have a tradition of the water tower being tagged, or something similar. In cases like this, there's a channeling effect that keeps it confined to more appropriate places, and off of downtown businesses.

Anonymous said...

"If there are so few grafiti vandals getting caught, then I think the state can easily afford to give the ones who are caught life sentences."

A Life Sentence!?! PULEEZZZZ, how about we just give your address so they can come by and vote with their spray cans..

That is the same MINDLESS, ignorant rant that has gotten us into this mess. the prison budget was getting too outta hand to afford, we are allowing private companies to watch those in prison. If graffiti is so bad where you live, MOVE!

Anonymous said...

If they spray you up. move!

LHR said...

Check out K-Space Contemporary in Corpus Christi who has been actually DOING something about the graf problem by teaching classes that inform these youth about the severity of our local laws and give them a place to express themselves LEGALLY. Unfortunately, funding for the arts has been cut almost 90% this year and programs such as these may now be history. As an art therapist, it is hard for me to understand why criminalization is still the answer...what about all the research in Australia that confirms that providing free walls is effective in reducing unwanted graffiti? Graf writing has been around since we were living in caves and throughout all cultures and historical periods since. I believe the true crime is imprisoning a local 18 yr old future art teacher for selling markers on the internet. That's the reality here in Corpus Christi.

Anonymous said...

There is a difference between Graffiti and "Tagging."

I like Graffiti art work and the city should encourage avenues or places where it can be done.

Much of what has Corpus upset is "tagging." Often found on private property with no regard to the property owner rights. This is vandalism.

Personally, I think that the victims of such Vandalism should be allowed to go into the offenders home and "tag" all of the offenders property or at least to the appropriate money damage. See how happy they are to have their property destroyed.

If you take, break, or defile something I own with out my permission it is personal. This is why people are upset.

Corpus resident

Anonymous said...

Much of the "tagging" is gang related.

Anonymous said...

09:08 said

"give them a place to express themselves LEGALLY"

You seem to think these poor dears spray because they have been denied a chance to express themselves. We need to "give" them a place. You know, they could spray all over the walls of their home or on their TV set - no they wouldn't want to destroy their own property, just yours. I'm glad your so tolerant.

, poo

Gritsforbreakfast said...

10:02 - don't scoff at solutions if you don't have one to offer. Or do you think what Corpus is doing now is working well for them? Nobody seems to think it's solved the tagging problem.

9:48 - it's false that most is gang related. In fact, the opposite is true. If the only issue were actual criminal street gangs, there are other ways to go after them and it'd be an easier problem for police to solve.

Anonymous said...

The tough only get tougher is exactly what is going on.. Summer programs are being cut, our parks are becoming deserts. I remember when every summer our elementary was turned into a recreation center, now we have to fight to keep them open. There are waiting lists on each one that is open, oh and by the way they use to be free. We'd play go home for lunch and come back. So, maybe one solution is not getting tougher, but making places to hang and not in prison camps. K-Space is a great start. "Make Art, Not War". Lets start this revolution.

Anonymous said...

Actually, Grits I live in Corpus and spent 9 years working with gangs. I can tell you that much of the tagging in Corpus that I have seen is gang related. Very little resembles Graffiti.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Which gangs, 8:00? E.g., which gang did this kid belong to, or these? It doesn't seem like gangbangers are making up the bulk of graffiti arrests.

In their public pronouncements, the Corpus police attribute most of the volume to youth tagging crews trying to outdo each other, many of whom they claim to have identified, not criminal street gangs.

In any event, whoever is doing it, rapid cleanup is the single most effective approach. For that matter, there's little chance that expanding programming and art opportunities for youth could possibly be LESS effective than has been Corpus' enforcement-only approach on graffiti.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the advice, but I'll stay in my neighborhood. I take comfort that the sentences are being enhanced. We may never have a life sentence for graf writers, but at least we're heading in the right direction.

If you don't like this "tough" approach, maybe you should leave the state.

Anonymous said...

d.w. says...

never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.

Jim w said...

seems like people are going a bit nuts...

Tagging is often gang related, so why not deal with the gang problems, poverty and p***ed off youth instead of chasing the end product of all this?

It's like the knife crime policy in the UK, they stop and search younger people all over london (especially minorities), they prosecute and prosecute but they never look at why it's all happening! Fix the angry kids and other things will improve.

Rapists can be out of jail in 3 years, 2 years for tagging is idiotic.

Anonymous said...

a punk that tagged rich people not poor Sales~ That is why exploiting a child to an adult violant institution 4 business contributions?"
2 Comments - Show Original Post Collapse comments

Blogger dannoynted1 said...

So you give him a fine that he cant pay and you expect business to be good?
But I guess that will lead him (Hernandez) and Sales to the path of righteousness?

Paul James Rick Perry Sale your sole to the highest bitter.

9:12 PM

Blogger dannoynted1 said...

retaliation is only if you beat me by prove you care about all the people of this city of the Body of Christi you work for......or yourself?

Motion to refuse/recuse your self concerning your knowledge and refusal to prosecute that female sexual predator Amaya and Shearer just like you hide from prosecuting them. yeah that is the path!


9:34 PM