Monday, September 17, 2007

Creating public spaces for invited art adds carrot to stick of banning uninvited graff

I've been arguing that part of the public policy solution to graffiti must be the creation of legitimate, invited public spaces for artwork in addition to banning uninvited graff.

El Paso has begun an experiment in that direction, with the local police department sponsoring a graffiti mural contest and selecting four teenage winners who were given carte blanche to illustrate four highway support poles. Two of the four winners will continue to work with the city on other projects, reports the El Paso Times ("Graffiti murals, artists take bows at Lincoln Park," Sept. 17).

Lately, as I've considered the possibility of creating spaces for "invited" graffiti, I've realized that support pylons holding up elevated highways and roads, like over- and underpasses, are prime real estate for potential invited graffiti projects. Electrical boxes are another obvious spot where graffiti could be invited, and also scaffolding at construction sites. (Indeed, in Brooklyn, NY a developer has begun using scaffolding with graffiti pre-installed to reduce uninvited graff.)

In fact, as you drive around town over the next few days, start to pay attention to the spots where you most commonly see graffiti and ask yourself, would I object if a quality, youth-drawn mural were allowed here instead? Anywhere you see quickly scrawled graff that you consider a blight could potentially be a spot hosting an invited youth mural. In most cases, as with the support poles along the highways, such illustrations would improve the landscape, not mar it. That's the idea behind a project in Brownsville where the local alternative education program takes kids out to paint murals over graffiti-ridden walls. And taggers are much less likely to deface property that's covered with recognizably intentional art.

There are two prongs, in my mind, to a successful graffiti strategy for municipalities: Eliminating uninvited graffiti as quickly as possible at minimum or no expense to the property owner, and creating (in cooperation with private interests) invited public spaces and opportunities for graff writers to display their work.

Graff writers are seldom caught by police, so jacking up criminal penalties against taggers has resulted in little decline in the amount of graffiti in most Texas cities. Rapid elimination of uninvited tags creates a stronger disincentive, while inviting talented artists to decorate public spaces gives them a reason to come out of the shadows and behave more responsibly, disrupting the culture of alienation that fuels petty vandalism. (Photos from the El Paso Times.)


Anonymous said...

I love this idea on so many levels...the main reason I like it, is it's a very proactive approach to a problem. All too often in our society we spend so much time complaining about issues, whining, and griping about all that is wrong with the world --but we rarely, if ever, take active steps to solve those problems.

By looking at how graffiti can be destructive to neighborhoods and buildings -- the natural choice is 'prosecuting those little thugs' for a solution but seeing as how thats not always an option -- you've examined other ways to combat the problem constructively and attempted to encourage us to implement a similar solution to el paso's.

I love it!! I hope everyone will take your example today and look at an issue that plagues them and then find the most constructive, positive, proactive approach to solving that problem.

Anonymous said...


Are there any studies that prove your theories about public spaces reducing tagging? I've tried to review most of your posts on the subject and I didn't find them.

Thanks, RoAN

Gritsforbreakfast said...

RoAN - I'm not sure I've seen actual peer reviewed studies, and most places only implement parts of the approach I've suggested, but I've seen anecdotal evidence of the approach working.

As far as the particular anti-vandalism theory of graffiti I'm espousing - restoration for victims (through erasure of uninvited graffiti) and creation of invited space for artists, I came up with it applying some of the philosophical approaches I learned at that restorative justice event in June. But RJ is mostly focused on violent crime victims, so applying it to a nonviolent property offense may be a new approach (or at least I've seen no one else frame it that way), and therefore couldn't have been empirically tested as such.

We know this for sure - the current system catches and punishes only a small percentage of taggers, and every Texas city of any size has a graffiti problem despite laws now making many tags a straight up felony. Using government resources to quickly erase uninvited graffiti IMO creates a greater disincentive for taggers than high penalties, because of their very low probability of being caught. (One Fort Bend crew allegedly did 1,300 spots before being arrested.) Taggers worry more about their stuff being erased than the threat of jail time, so just like you do rearing a child, to me it's logical to use what they care about to craft the appropriate punishment - in this case, quickly removing their work if they don't play by the rules, but also creating rules that it's possible to play by, even encouraged. best,

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting theory. Not sure I buy it though. Half the thrill of tagging is that it's against the law and you are destroying someone's property. I doubt that public spaces would reduce that.

But I like the art that some guys bring and the places you suggest (except electrical panels!!!!) could use a little sprucing up.



Gritsforbreakfast said...

The reason for the public spaces is that a handful of taggers do a HUGE percentage of the tagging, so if you can divert even a fraction of them to legitimate spots, it reduces total uninvited graff a lot.

There will always be people for whom the thrill is pure vandalism, and that's why only creating public spaces won't solve the problem, IMO, without the rapid cleanup component.

My argument isn't that this or any strategy would eliminate graffiti, which dates at least to Pompeii if not cave dwellers and will always be with us in some form. But I do believe it would reduce uninvited graffiti and better serve property owners than the current approach.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

BTW, what's wrong with electrical panels - they're everywhere, they're covered with tags already ... as long as they're not painted shut, what's the complaint? It's not like they don't get tagged now.

That's an example of a spot where I already see tagging ubiquitously, so to me better to cover them with art if they'll be tagged anyway. The other option is to constantly clean them, which sure doesn't happen now.

Anonymous said...

"what's wrong with electrical panels?"

It is dangerous. Very. Just because they are already being vandalized doesn't mean that they should be. Think of the liability we would incur. It just isn't worth it.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

RoAN, maybe we're not talking about the same things. Do you really think it's dangerous to paint these things, or these?

Those electrical or utility boxes are often in prime public spots and easily accessible, so the question isn't really "should" they be painted but whether it would be "invited" or "uninvited" (or even as in NY, PRE-graffitied, if we were really clever). When uninvited, there's also the danger for those doing the cleanup.

There may well be spots too dangerous to condone graffiti, but in those spots cities must then pledge constant, rapid cleanup or the lawbreakers will inevitably prevail. Just passing tougher laws obviously hasn't solved the problem.

Thanks for the comments!

Anonymous said...


Both of those examples are telephone junction boxes without high voltage (relatively anyway).

But they are private property. No, they shouldn't be used as public space art because they aren't public.

Again, just because people are currently vandalizing private property doesn't mean that we should make a law saying that they can.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

They're private property of the phone company, though, right?

In my scheme, there would be a public-private partnership to get rid of uninvited graffiti, in part, by convincing private owners of such spots to participate in the public arts program.

The other option is to pay for cleanup, either at the property owner or taxpayers' expense. Saying there "shouldn't" be graffiti is like saying there "shouldn't" be wind. You can say it all day but the leaves still flap in the breeze.

Right now many cities penalize property owners for graffiti on their land. If the law required property owners like the phone company to either a) participate in the program or b) pay for their own rapid cleanup, I think they'd participate in a heartbeat. For them, as with the graff artists, there are carrots and sticks to encourage participation, plus there'd need to be a lot of public ed, since there's a lot of built-up resentment to overcome on all sides. Thx!

Anonymous said...

Saying there "shouldn't" be graffiti is like saying there "shouldn't" be wind. You can say it all day but the leaves still flap in the breeze.

I don't feel much like arguing today, in a good mood now that Fred Hill is leaving office.

But if I were in a mood to argue, I'd say that if we followed your argument, we'd eliminate all law. After all, there will "always" be murders. There will "always" be theft. There will "always" be crime.

So, heck with it all!

But, back to your program, I like it if you include the private partnerships voluntarily, not coerce them with new laws about cleanup.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

Stuff in the right of way like phone boxes, I don't mind a little coercion. For regular ol' property owners I agree with you.

Just to be clear, though, many cities including Houston already have penalties for property owners victimized by graffiti. So there wouldn't be any "new laws about cleanup," just alternatives to the current, non-working system that's pissing a lot of property owners off.

As for your philosophical point, my response would be that you pick your battles in law enforcement, and graffiti isn't worth expending massive resources on by comparison to other crimes, especially when other solutions are available that haven't been tried.

Glad the Fred Hill news put you in a good mood - I'll bet you're not alone, but be careful what you ask for. He pulled a significant conservative load, opposition to Craddick notwithstanding. He's sure put the kabosh on a lot of my stuff over the years. It'll be a while before his replacement has much clout. best,

Anonymous said...

It'll be a while before his replacement has much clout.

That's a good thing. I don't care about Craddick. I care that Fred Hill single handedly stopped appraisal cap reform 4 years ago and now he is history.

I realize a lot of people don't care about property owners paying more taxes and getting nothing for it. But IMHO, it is the absolute worst form of taxation in the country.


Anonymous said...

I am a graffiti artist myself and am all for this idea. I have been tagging since I was 12 and have seen the talent of san antonios underground artists. I know the type of passion that drives us artists to take the risks we take in order to publicize our expression. I am attempting to establish a public building for graffiti artists to express themselves freely in a safe environment without fear of getting in amy trouble however funds are an issue. If anyone has any suggestions or agree with this idea message me my email is thanks you