As the war on graffiti vandalism rages, a word of warning from the people who's job it is prosecute taggers. They say you will be caught, arrested and more than likely will go to prison. It's the type of vandalism that's more than just a costly nuisance. It's a crime. Prosecutors want to send out a message to all "taggers" reminding them that this crime will get you prison time.The problem with that message is that much of it is a bold-faced lie, particularly the contention that "you will be caught, arrested and more than likely will go to prison." At least for 99.9% of graffiti crimes (less than one tagger is arrested per 1,000 offenses), the overwhelming majority of offenses go unsolved and are not prosecuted.
"You have to be held accountable for what you do...and that's why you're going to be doing time behind bars," says prosecutor Joe Mike Pena.
How likely is it that taggers will go to prison? According to the Criminal Justice Impact Statement for a recent graffiti enhancement bill (discussed in this Grits post): "In fiscal year 2010, 212 offenders were placed on misdemeanor community supervision, 56 offenders were placed on felony community supervision, and 21 offenders were admitted to prison or state jail." So that's 289 people total convicted and sentenced for graffiti crimes in FY 2010 statewide, most of them juveniles. By contrast, there were hundreds of thousands of tags thrown up in Texas in 2010. The chances of getting caught and convicted are, in fact, minuscule. And even for those convicted, most of them (rightly) received misdemeanor probation, with just 7% going to prison. (mostly those who tagged a church, school, or community center, which now carries an automatic state jail felony charge).
Two recurring Grits themes are that heightened criminal penalties can't solve every social problem and that penalty enhancements have little effect on crimes with low clearance rates. Both observations apply in spades to graffiti crimes. The "message" sent by jacking up punishments for the handful of people caught is not only rarely delivered, it's in some ways a counterproductive one, serving to glamorize the activity for rebellious youth without actually solving the problem.
Meanwhile, a different and far more effectively delivered message about graffiti is being trumpeted in Dallas, where graffiti artist Shepard Fairey (the man who did the Obama Hope posters and was featured in Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop) has been hired to paint a dozen large, outdoor murals. Reports the Morning News (behind paywall):
Fairey and his team fly in on Sunday and begin scouting 12 to 15 locations on Monday before pulling out the paintbrushes on Tuesday. The end result will be at least a dozen giant murals (with one stretching 150 feet wide) in such communities as West Dallas, Oak Cliff and Deep Ellum. Highland Park is not on the list.
Dallas Contemporary, which revels in the edginess of Fairey’s art, commissioned the project. Its director, Peter Doroshenko, loves Fairey’s ability to provoke reaction, no matter where his eerily bold images leave their imprint.This turn of events reminds me of a Grits headline from 2010: "Yesterday's graffiti is today's art and tomorrow's economic growth." Fairey's illegal tagging hobby has transformed him into an internationally known artist whose talents are so well recognized that he's now being paid (in Texas, no less) to do projects for which he previously would have been prosecuted.
Aside from two events feting Fairey, none of his art will be shown at the Design District museum, even as it foots the bill for the outdoor murals.
“We’re doing this project to go beyond our walls, our building,” says Doroshenko, who came to Dallas Contemporary 14 months ago and worked with Fairey on a project in the United Kingdom in 2006.
Doroshenko cites Fairey as one of several artists he hopes to bring to Dallas “who work in nontraditional or outdoor kinds of ways, so that you don’t have to travel to Toulouse or Tunisia to see their work. It’s here, in the city, where it will reach millions of people as they drive by on the freeway or on their way to work.” Fairey loves having an outdoor canvas, Doroshenko says, rather than having to confine his work to a museum. Fairey, like Doroshenko, revels in the notion of “adding art to a person’s everyday repertoire.”
Doroshenko calls the project “giving back to the community and on a grand scale.” He says he picked Fairey not just because he knows him but also because “all the street artists that work in Dallas or Texas are influenced by him.” Even city officials and private landlords have come to appreciate what Doroshenko calls Fairey’s “art intervention” in their communities.
So in Corpus Christi, prosecutors hope to "send a message" by prosecuting the one out of a thousand or so offenses where taggers are caught, while in Dallas they're sending a message with 150' wide murals that graffiti can be real art and that some graff writers must be viewed as true artists, worthy of the admiration of their peers.
Which "message" do you suppose will influence taggers more?
See related Grits posts:
- Toward a restorative graffiti policy
- Graffiti solutions: A cost-benefit analysis
- Texas 'students do without art' but streets still open to graff writers
- Best ever graffiti prophylactic: 'We're going to get this kid a job'
- What exactly is so great about a plain grey wall?
- New Dallas graffiti czar looking past criminal justice approaches
- Kids do less art in school, more in street, Lege reacts with hammer
- Creating public spaces for invited art adds carrot to stick of banning uninvited graff
- Invited graffiti: Solution or enabling for unwanted tags?
- Paint responsibly: Museum offers hands-on graffiti exhibit
- Allowing invited graff best way to reduce unwanted graffiti
- Austin lags on important third component of graffiti policy
- Mexico prevents graffiti by encouraging it at El Azteca Stadium
- Moscow turns to invited graffiti to liven up Soviet era buildings