Friday, August 17, 2007

Toward a restorative graffiti policy

"Paint responsibly," the Liberty Science Center advised graffiti artists, what you create is a "cultural asset." As a thought experiment, what would it mean to put that approach into practice, to completely rethink how society considers public graffiti and those who perform it? How might communities enshrine such values into public policy?

For starters, following the restorative justice model, such an approach might focus on making the victim whole, which at a minimum must include cleaning up vandalized property. In many jurisdictions the property owner is legally responsible for removing graffiti, no matter who put it there. That's not fair.

On the other hand, a restorative policy seeks to make whole everyone involved and prevent the violation from recurring. Some youth, as a Grits commenter eloquently put it, are themselves using a spray can to record their "cries in the night." After writing this post, I was struck by how police in Corpus Christi apparently know exactly who most of their local taggers are, claiming to have identified 100 individual taggers who run in 32 separate "crews" (which probably overglorifies such groups).

That made me think - if you know who these kids are, why not deal with them directly? I don't mean negotiate, though there may be a little of that over the use of public spaces (as there already is informally now). But that kind of intelligence gathering about taggers by police represents a significant deployment of police resources, and the tactic shows little effectiveness at solving the problem.

No doubt there is a significant gang element to tagging (just like with rap music), but that doesn't sully it universally as an art form. Gangs use art and symbolism because they are powerful. Why cede them that terrain? Why not fight them over it? Why not deploy resources to channel artists in positive directions and use symbols in ways that promote community instead of destroys it?

What if graffiti were for the most part taken away from criminal law enforcement, and the resources used by police to identify and monitor every last tagger in Corpus Christi were put to more productive uses? What might that look like?

Perhaps cities could try a civilian instead of criminal graffiti enforcement approach, combined with incentives for promoting art and artists, housed in Parks or Public Works instead of the police department.

The civilian agency would include professional artists or art educators on the management team and carry out the following mandate: a) teach art to kids to give youth an outlet, b) identify and train talented artists to channel toward careers in graphic arts, c) identify and secure public, private and renewable spots for graffiti artists, d) manage clean up crews for businesses and homeowners who receive unwanted tags, partially staffed by juvenile probationers, and e) use local Arts in Public Places funds to promote youth artists in the pursuit of the above-goals.

Property rights violators would still be arrested, but graffiti arrests would basically be a way to identify a talent pool to steer into the civilian program (with participation enforced through probation, especially for repeat offenders).

Meanwhile, in the new information era graphic art talents are more in demand than ever. Maybe it's time society started to view graffiti artists not as mere lawbreakers but as creative, marketable human capital? Perhaps it would be smarter to spend public resources not to maximally punish graffiti, but to identify emerging artists and invest in their development?

That approach would value arts and artists and seek to preserve rather than suppress youthful talent, but remain focused on discouraging and cleaning up graffiti performed as vandalism without the consent of the property owner.

Whaddya think? Repeat arrests and longer sentences haven't helped. Is it time for a "smart on crime" approach toward graffiti? And is this what a smarter approach would look like?

See prior, related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

I think you have a good idea that might turn some property offenders around where conventional enforcement has failed. How would you address the subversive component to tagging? Isn't that the element that really drives the art form and will graffiti artists give up that power?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Hey Proximo, good to hear from you. I'd been wondering what happened to you!

I agree you've hit on a central cultural dilemma with this or any graffiti solution. I'd answer this way:

First and most important, the key enforcement is the cleanup, not incarceration. Washing off uninvited tags promptly is a big disincentive - most taggers aren't caught most times they go out, so jail doesn't scare them. But if hours of work aren't there the next day, they won't keep doing it.

Authorizing "good" spots (backs of signs, overpasses, business walls, electrical boxes, etc.) creates a positive incentive to go with the negative one. If graffiti in approved spots stays up and uninvited graffiti is removed, over time committed taggers will migrate to where their work will have staying power.

Finally, I think that by mainstreaming graffiti a little bit - removing its "outlaw" mystique - you mitigate some of what you're talking about. If growing up, every school art class had an electronic graffiti wall, e.g., like in the Liberty museum and tags are stored and shared anywhere in the world, it might take away the air of wildness surrounding graffiti.

Since writing on the wall is illegal, the very act of doing it is rebellion. When it's common and allowed, the rebellious kids will do something else. It's like skateboarding - it's cool unless your Dad likes to come with you - then you'd rather do something else.

And of course, some people will inevitably still violate the law, and gang tags will still be used to mark turf. For them, you keep cleaning up the graffiti promptly, arrest them if you can (and when you do, try to work the program), and otherwise go on about your business, because at the end of the day, it's just graffiti.

Thanks for the comment!

Unknown said...

As far as the subversive element goes, I see two types here. I was a pretty subversive kid - I never got in much trouble, but that was because I didn't get caught. When I was channelled correctly, I did good stuff - I was winning math competitions because my calculus teacher rocked, while at the same time I was dropping acid, producing samizdat that made my highschool principal nuts, because I didn't have a different outlet. These are the kids to appeal to. Authoritarian approaches just encouraged me.

There's a second type, with whom I hung out with a lot during that phase. There's a core of antisocialization that sets in, and I think there's little that can be done after a certain point to get them through it. A small group, but there.