Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Graffiti solutions: A cost-benefit analysis

In my own misspent youth I dabbled in the usual, requisite amount of socially tolerated, small-town graffiti my senior year in high school - scrawling jingoistic banalities on the occasional local water tower, overpass and so forth - and ever since have watched with wonder as what once was a quaint, anachronistic pastime for bored teens has been criminalized as though a spray can were a deadly weapon.

It's obvious to me that the punitive approach will never work with graffiti because kids simply will never process the consequences of their actions at that level. Writing "I love Alex" on the wall in the 6th grade bathroom will never seem like a big deal to a kid. And it shouldn't. Because it's not.

But in Texas you can be charged with felony graffiti crimes that theoretically could land you in prison right alongside murderers and robbers.

Even so, everywhere you go in Texas cities you'll see graffiti. The "tuffer" laws haven't stopped it at all.

Over the past few years I've tracked how different jurisdictions have handled graffiti in Texas and beyond, and I think Corpus Christi is taking the very best possible approach: They've bought a truck to powerwash the graffiti off.

For some it's a political thing. Or maybe it's gangs and turf. But bottom line, graff artists of all stripes tag public spaces for one, fundamental reason: For their "tags" to be seen by others.

If, when graffiti is reported, the city comes by that day and powerwashes it off, pretty soon the fun wears off. Nearly every graff artist is young person, after all, if the tag won't stay up you can always smoke pot and play video games instead.

According to the Corpus Christi Caller Times ("Who you gonna call: Graffitibusters," Aug. 6):
In June, the police department knew of 32 tagging crews, with an estimated 100 members, according to Ben Teed, an officer with the Juvenile Enforcement Team. The tagging seems to be from rival crews looking to outdo one another and claim domain.
So let's walk through the cost-benefit analysis for a moment. Let's pretend that it was possible to arrest, prosecute and convict all 100 of the "taggers" in Corpus, and that each had done enough damage to be prosecuted with a state jail felony, a two year stint. At $16,000 per year incarceration costs, that's $32,000 per tagger, times 100, is $3.2 million, not including costs for police, courts, jails, defense counsel, etc., which might boost the cost, say, to the $4 million neighborhood or higher, by the time it's said and done (if it were even possible).

By comparison, the Graffitibuster truck cost $77,000. Even if it costs twice that to staff and maintain it, you're talking about less than four percent of the cost of dealing with graffiti through incarceration.

Even better, you're doing what the business owners really want, which is to get rid of the graffiti! So you get them off your back, the city looks nicer, and you've saved the taxpayers a ton of money.

All the cops in Corpus will never outwit those 100 taggers, I promise you. Cops are busy people with lots of things on their mind, and those kids have all the time in the world to plot and plan how to get away with their antics. Take away their incentive - for their tags to be seen - and soon enough they'll lose interest and go on to something else.

Oh, and one other thing. When a kid IS caught and convicted for graffiti writing, IMO incarceration is a foolish option and there should be only one acceptable punishment: Working shifts washing walls or else staffing the Graffitibuster truck.

UPDATE: A commenter points out this article from the Abilene paper describing a program where the juvenile probation department there sends out youth to clean up graffiti as part of their community service obligations.

MORE: Just ran across a recent Dallas news item about post-Katrina graffit in New Orleans, declaring, "Hurricane Katrina seemed to unloose the closeted spray paint taggers among the ranks of the military and animal rescue communities." Some folks don't want to wash away the tags left by rescue workers, considering them an ironic "mark of distinction."

AND MORE: Here's a neat idea, especially for a city with a deep tagger talent pool. Even if you're going to powerwash off most graffiti, perhaps you could throw the taggers a bone and give them their own street! In Hanoi, Vietnam, several prominent tagging crews did this with the building owners' permission, who also took part in formally judging the works. (Reminds me of the youth center in Wichita Falls that invited graffiti artists to paint in public spaces.) Might be a neat idea in a club district or something.

FINAL UPDATE: Okay, this remark in response this post from Dirty Third Streets was so over the top I had to add it to the accolades in Grits' sidebar. Thanks, Dirty!

/Photo credit: Dirty Third Streets.


Anonymous said...

Is that a confession Henson? Too bad the statues of limitation have run out on your tagging our water towers! I always wondered what ever happened to those dudes who did that, what they’d become.

Now we know.

You should've spent sometime in TYC for your felony, spraying all those water towers. We’d be spraying you right back in TYC!

But you know why I see less of that "large scale tagging" you were involved with? You kinda hit on it: better video games and better pot! lol!! Wished I was a kid again, but not in these days! Henson, Henson, Henson…. Too funny!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"All those water towers," I think was precisely one, but there you have it, my friend, now you know. :)

And yes it was a confession of a 22 or 23-year old misdemeanor. I guess now I can never be guvnah, huh?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the laugh Guvnah... it's been a hell-week here!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, go visit Dirty Third Streets and check out some of his old posts sometime when you get a minute. There's still plenty of "large scale" tagging going on that far outscales anything I ever tried. E.g., look at the back of the Houston billboard in the picture in this post - that graff artist has some BIG brass cojones.

Anonymous said...

No doubt it's become political. Have you ever seen the kid on 6th during the weekend selling off his work? That kid used to be on my caseload many moons ago. That boy had talent then, and people stood in amazement when he'd spay his cans in unison with other cans on paper objects that people paid 75-100 for and uh-hem, I have one hanging on my wall. I framed it. I'm not sure where he's at now, because I got too old to hang on 6th, but that kid had a gift.

You ought to go back and spray a bowel of grits being lapped up on the tanks - with a Rolling Stones tongue! lol! Here’s to aging ;)

Anonymous said...

No, but you could be the TYC Ombudsman. he! he!

Anonymous said...

I like your solution, Grits. I think it would be a fine idea to have the taggers complete community service hours by working alongside the Graffitibuster staff.

Anonymous said...

Tagging is a much more sinister and deadly reality in Los Angeles. I attended two funerals of tagger/wanabes from my barrio. Tagging rarely had the artistic expression to which you refer. It was a crude symbol/letter sprayed on every storefront window and door, church windows, every wooden fence, lamp post, sidewalk, bench at the bus stop, etc. etc. They perfected a mix of paint and acid to etch it into the storefront windows. On the city buses I rode, the windows were opaque from the tags scratched into them. The seatcovers were a collage of metallic paint pen tags. They scratch tags into the stainless steal hand rails in the buses! Inventive - taggers would scribble their gang/nieghborhood tag onto USPS Priority Mail labels and slap them on top of other tags on the bus, bench, light post, fence, people's cars, and on and on...
One church organized a graffiti busters crew of former gang bangers. The did great work and got lots of positive press, till they were gunned down by a gang that took offense at having their tags removed from the neighborhood.
Since my return to Texas I haven't seen anything of the same magnitude, but it's getting there in a few neighborhoods.
I love the larger, symbolic, original, artistic, bubble letters, shaded, etc. that used to grace overpasses and water towers. It's no fun anymore when a 13 year old pulls a gun on you and says to leave his tag on your fence, "or else!"

Anonymous said...

County sends teens to clear graffiti
When vandals strike, youths on probation arrive to cover up the crime
By Kyle Peveto
Sunday, August 5, 2007

Photo by Ronald Erdrich

Reporter-News Photo by Ronald W. Erdrich Graffiti on an alley wall behind Warehouse Furniture at 1158 Butternut St. has been a problem for the business.

Crime fighters devoted to safety
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There's a can of white paint at the Taylor County Juvenile Probation Department with Ricky Spivey's name on it.

Spivey manages Warehouse Furniture at 1158 Butternut St. in Abilene, a building graffiti artists love to hit. The rear wall, a big, white canvas along a concealed back alley, promises cover from the street. It's been painted four to five times in the past year, most recently about two weeks ago.

But each time the building gets tagged, Spivey contacts the juvenile probation department, and a group of teenagers on probation for criminal mischief crimes covers the marks.

"It's good," Spivey said while examining the newest black squiggles along the block wall. "When kids do something like this, it helps them to get a better life, and it saves the community money."

Called the graffiti eradication program, the business pays for the paint -- unless the probation department has the same shade left from a previous project -- and gets the labor for free.

Since the program began a few years ago, the juvenile probation department has saved Warehouse Furniture the cost of paying for painters five times. That, in turn, saves customers money, Spivey said.

About six years ago, grant money became available to the juvenile probation department through anti-gang programs, said Randy Williams, a director of juvenile probation. Instead of using the funding for salaries, the department bought painting equipment and a high-pressure water sprayer for a community service project aimed at covering graffiti.

Last year, the graffiti eradication program worked on 66 buildings, removing what paint they could with the sprayer and painting over the rest. Forty-four teenagers on probation worked more than 1,068 hours on graffiti and other community service projects, Williams said.

Besides repairing graffiti-covered walls, the juvenile probation department adopts some highways and picks up trash along city streets and alleyways.

Property owners can report the offensive paint, and the Abilene Police Department keeps tabs on newly tagged buildings. Most, like Spivey, are thrilled to get help from the county.

However, some business owners would rather not pay for the paint and choose to leave the graffiti alone.

Graffiti and criminal mischief -- petty vandalism crimes -- hit their highest point in the summer, when teenagers are out of school, said Lee Reed, an investigator in APD's youth division. A recent rash of criminal mischief crimes has left several businesses with red spray-painted walls, and Warehouse Furniture was hit just days after probationers finished covering other graffiti across the business' rear wall.

"This is just the normal type of summertime crime," he said.

Reed and Williams said they believe in the program. They know it will not end graffiti for good, but it will teach probationers about their crime's effect on property owners.

"They figure out whatever they paint isn't going to last, so they go elsewhere," said Williams.

"If we can get to the kids who are out spray painting, then the word gets out that (the juveniles on probation) just have to keep painting over it."

© 2007 Abilene Reporter-News

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@11:18 - I would argue that by the time a 13 year old pulls a gun on you, you've got bigger crime problems than graffiti! Los Angeles has the worst gang problem in the country and it's because their policies promote it.

I hope nothing in this article implies I think that 13 year old who pulls a gun shouldn't be dealt with more seriously. But even so, the scenario you describe shows the effectiveness of the graffitibusters truck. If he's willing to shoot someone over the tag, he wants it to stay up - that's his motivation. So I still think rapid-response cleaning crews are the best graffiti approach. best,

Anonymous said...

Wednesday August 1, 2007

Police investigate rash of profane, anti-Semitic graffiti markings

By Candace Cooksey Fulton — Brownwood Bulletin

Brownwood police are investigating a rash of graffiti markings — some of it profane and anti-Semitic.

During the weekend, in south Brownwood, the Woodland Heights Elementary School building and Brownwood Fire Marshal Buddy Preston’s truck were tagged with pink spray paint. Guardian EMS also filed a report on Friday that a “spare” ambulance in its fleet and a nearby Dumpster had been marked with red spray paint.

Early Sunday morning, officer Fred Bastardo was dispatched to Woodland Heights after a passerby noticed the south side of the building and several windows had been spray-painted pink. The taggers had made several depictions, including swastikas and pentagons, and had also written profane phrases against Jews and school.

read entire report here: www.brownwoodbulletin.com

Gritsforbreakfast said...

So what's the point of the Brownwood story? Does a racist motivation make the strategy of immediate cleanup less effective? Is it inherently worse than a gang motivation?

Personally I think giving some racist idiot lots of publicity only encourages the taggers' goal, which is to get attention. Arrest them if you know who they are, but most important is clean it up immediately, and always come back one more time than the tagger does.

Anonymous said...

is that kid you refer to still on 6th street? I wouldn't mind purchasing something from a former TYC youth who figured out a way to use his talent in a non-illegal way.

Anonymous said...

Hey 6:54 - that was 10 years ago, and I'm kind of in the "old man policy" development mind frame... Out of respect (and law) I can't mention his name, but the kid is in Europe now (Spain) and doing very well with "brush work," now that's great! His mother showed me his work, and I'm like wow, that kid I knew did that! It would stun anyone who ever had a pre-conceived notion out there. Some of these kids find their talent, some don't. I give credit to those vocational teachers (and teachers) and JCO staff. I'll see if I can PDF this one classic shot while in Spain with my wife and children, and "our TYC boy." He fits right in. Great pic.

Anonymous said...

Scott, I meant the L.A. post to support the need & sensible approach of early intervention efforts in Texas. I guess I got off track remembering the tragic cycle of violence in L.A. More power (power washers) to graffiti busters across the state!