Thursday, May 22, 2008

Austin lags on important third component of graffiti policy

A couple of weeks ago Austin PD launched its largest graffiti crackdown in recent memory, arresting 18 people, all adults, on felony and misdemeanor charges ("APD graffiti investigation sees 18 arrests," May 15), reported Channel 8 News:

A 10-month investigation led to the arrest of 18 people on graffiti-related charges.

An Austin Police Department detective carried out the investigation in an effort to charge those responsible, and cut down on property damage. It helped identify 130 suspects and at least two dozen graffiti gangs.

Police have worked together with citizens, neighborhood associations and business groups to identify new graffiti and identify taggers.

"In the past there was not a good way to identify them; and with the help of the neighborhoods and the people getting involved, it really enabled it,” Det. Kevin Bartles said. “Up until this point a lot of people had given up on it and they just accepted it.”

In 2007, the graffiti abatement unit painted over more than 16,000 pieces of graffiti in Austin.

It's estimated that graffiti in Austin causes more than half-a-million dollars in damage every year.

Once again government finds itself in a catch-22 with respect to petty crimes committed by many individuals, similar to the dilemma it faces in the drug war. The "trail 'em, nail 'em, and jail 'em" model works no better for reducing graffiti than pot smoking. After all, how many drug offenders quit for good after being arrested and prosecuted? You can expect no greater percentage to change their ways for petty crimes like graffiti, where incarceration serves little real, tangible deterrent because the likelihood of being caught is low.

The pasteup art at left, via Dirty Third Streets, was part of quite a bit of graff that went up in Austin the week following APD's big graffiti bust, so the deterrent effect of APD's sweep so far appears minimal.

Think how many resources were expended to achieve this result compared to the benefit: Even when announcing its "success" at busting 18 people, APD admits there are another 112 it knows about but cannot find evidence to arrest after a 10 month investigation.

Not only is arresting taggers hard to accomplish, using the justice system to punish graffiti feeds into the egos and anti-authoritarian presentiments of the tagger crowd. Austin PD claims to have identified 130 different taggers by their styles including the 18 they arrested, a feat which taggers must view on its face is a compliment - that somebody's paying enough attention to parse their stuff that closely. Playing cat and mouse with law enforcement feeds into a cycle of gamesmanship taggers enjoy, and bored teens with a spray can will inevitably win those matchups, just because there are too many of them and police have better things to do. My guess is APD has not identified close to all of Austin's taggers. Not long ago Corpus Christi police claimed to have identified more than 100 taggers in that much smaller town, and Austin is filled with graffiti and pasteup art.

Despite the aggregate cost of property damage, it's still hard for me to view an individual, isolated graffiti act as felonious, and anyway, it's a fool's errand to try to stop graffiti by taking graff writers "off the streets." There are too many of them, they're too hard to catch, and the penalties don't keep them behind bars long enough to matter, even when a felony is charged, because prisons are overcrowded with much more dangerous folks.

I've argued before that a misdemeanor charge is plenty, particularly if cities combine arrests with two additional approaches: Immediate cleanup and provision of public spaces to young artists.

Like several other Texas cities, Austin is putting significant resources into graffiti cleanup which is a bigger deterrent when done immediately, than the (remote) possibility of punishment. Graff writers will become discouraged if a night of fun and risk results in driving by the next day and seeing their work already removed. Part of the fun for graff writers is to see how long their work can "ride" at a given spot; as public policy matter it's best if that is a matter of hours instead of days or longer (Call 311 in Austin to request graffiti cleanup.)

The rapid cleanup approach can be implemented with much more certainty than punishment of the individual through the judicial system. Austin cleans up 16,000 graffiti sites per year, which doesn't get all of it but amounts to 43 sites per day, a significant effort. The city gets a lot of additional bang for the buck, IMO, when it spends money on cleanup compared to the cost of a criminal investigation. (Eighteen arrests resulting from more than 16,000 crimes isn't a very good ratio.)

The piece Austin doesn't do as well on is providing support and public spaces for young artists - not the scrawled gang tags, but those with real artistic talent, of which there are more than a few among graff writers, possibly even among those arrested. Austin should do a better job of giving them would-be graff writers legal and publicly acceptable outlets. In Australia, Europe, Mexico, and a few US cities including El Paso communities have made efforts to draw talented young artists out of the shadows, giving them legal graff spots or even turning over entire blocks to street artists (with residents' permission and cooperation).

We live in an information age where graphic artists' skills are in high demand. Hell, even the city routinely needs those services. To prosecute youthful talent instead of cultivate it IMO misses an opportunity.

All this to say, I'm mostly encouraged by Austin's approach. It's good to arrest the most frequent offenders, if you can catch them, and I'm glad the city council's commitment to funding graffiti cleanup is showing results. But if the police department spent ten months identifying 130 individual taggers and a couple dozen tagger crews but still can't arrest most of them, maybe they should try letting the Parks Department or some youth services division attempt to open lines of communication. In addition to enforcement and cleanup, I'd like to see the city creating legal venues around town and more opportunities for young artists.

That approach won't work with every graff writer, but whenever it does it'd be cheaper and more effective than prosecuting and jailing them by a country mile, not to mention generate more public art in invited spaces.

See past related Grits' posts:


Survivalwoman said...

I have to say who they hell can be angry at a dancing bananna on the back of an electrical box ?

Many a pasteup art has made me smile when nothing else could.

Now when its on other things yes, but i dont think it should apply to those thinsg found pasted on dumpsters , the backs of electrical boxes , Metal lightpoles or the back of telephone booths , nor when discreetly placed to make one laugh.

Dancing bannanas , Polkaing porkchops and such.

*sighs* I Miss Texas sometimes.

Now what about those dam band related postcards that litter the whole city ?

Anonymous said...

Simple: Remove one finger on the third and each subsequent offense. Eventually they will run out of fingers.

The Saudis have the right idea.

Michael said...

Yo, Grits! The Court of Appeals just ordered 39 of the YFZ kids returned to their mothers! Who cares about graffiti? Extra extra, read all about it! I wanted to see you take your victory lap.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

We're a long way from a "victory lap" yet, Michael, but it's good news. I just put something up.

As for: "Remove one finger on the third and each subsequent offense"

You don't know what you're talking about re: Saudi Arabia and graffiti. See the second half of this blog post for a discussion of Saudi Arabia's approach; they recently set up public walls for graffiti there.

Michael said...

In Fayetteville, AR, if we find someone spraying graffiti, we cut off their middle finger. If we catch 'em again, we cut off their ring finger. If we catch 'em a third time, we send 'em to live in Austin, Texas. Now you know where all those yahoos making the 'Hook 'em Horns!' sign come from.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

That's pretty good, Michael, I hadn't heard that one. Soowee!

Anonymous said...

Damn Im Amazed at the Austin PD Wow is this news or what ????I remember last June 19th when my Nephew was Murdered in Austin at a June 19th Celebration and the PD wimped out on that one...
I can see how the Austin PD is very powerful when It comes to Graffiti!!!Major news Huh....
I bet the Officers really move in when they see a Kid with a Spray can,,,,Its a shame they didnt do something like that last June 19th
Paul John Morales Jr

Anonymous said...

Gonna have to disagree with you on this one....these "artists" show zero respect for other people's property...when caught they need to be punished to the full extent the law allows.....though I think more emphasis should be put on making them work off their punishments by cleaning the messes they and their compradres commit instead of jailing all but the most egregious offenders.

Yes, their "artistic" taggers but from what I have seen they are in the minority....most of these folks are idiot thugs who do not care for anyone but themselves and totally disregard the concept of "if it is not your's....don't touch it"

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"if it is not your's....don't touch it" sounds great as a bumper sticker solution, olnacl, but from a pragmatic perspective, what that gets you in the real world (if the police put a lot of resources into it, as in Austin) is 18 arrests per 16,000 crimes. Don't you think that kind of abject failure rate merits trying additional strategies?

Anonymous said...

The question I did not see answered (and I may have missed it) was how many offenses were those 18 good for? Now I know they were not good for all 16,000 but that piece of info would be nice and might show why they were arrested.

And yes I agree with using other strategies (the public walls you mentioned being one) but I disagree with "just because you can't catch all of them....give up"...there has to be happy medium between the hang 'em all and let 'em all go philosophies.

In these towns that have put up public walls or provided a place for taggers to vent their angst has there been a reduction in tagging in the rest of the town? If yes, let's do it. If no, then it's no more productive than the hunt 'em down and arrest 'em approach.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised the arrested people were adults. It seems like such a juvenile activity.

Maybe they need a good spankin'

Gritsforbreakfast said...

olnacl, did I say "just because you can't catch all of them....give up"? Where does that come from? Nobody said anything of the sort.

I said you DON'T catch them all, not that you shouldn't. I'm acknowledging reality. Won't you? The arrest rate was 18 per 16,000 crimes last year. Even if each of those 18 is responsible for 100 sites, you're punishing people responsible for barely 10% of the problem. Plus, there's no guarantee (or even likelihood) that those 18 will all stop what they're doing if they're long-time, hard-core taggers. So if that's all you've got as a solution, you've got zilch.

Cities can't "stop" graffiti. You'll never do more than manage the problem. They found graffiti in Pompeii. It's one of the oldest human activities. All cities face a constant struggle with it that ebbs and flows, with greater or lesser success.

The public walls work best when they're combined with the rapid cleanup, creating incentives by allowing tags to "ride" in approved spots while being quickly removed in non-approved areas.

In the links at the end of this post I've argued for a three-pronged approach to manage and reduce graffiti: Enforcement (sans enhancements - felony graffiti is an absurdity when domestic violence and DWI are misdemeanors), immediate cleanup, and creating valid outlets that siphon people with actual talent into more credible venues. Without that last piece, though, IMO you're playing into the taggers' cat and mouse game, possibly even encouraging graffiti (because of the uncertainty of punishment) instead of reducing it.

Anonymous said... never said's just an impression I got from reading your thoughts.

doc's honeee said...

I'm an artist, have done public murals with high risk kids and known at least one tagger intimately. If this is the most important issue the Austin PD has on any given day, I'm moving there. And I like the dancing banana too!

Alison Grinter said...

Graffiti is also the only non-driving non-intoxication related crime that carries an automatic license suspension, and a big one - one year (see § 521.320 Transportation Code) and there's no better way I know to keep someone in the criminal justice system than to suspend their license.

Anonymous said...

Tychis here. Cavemen wrote on walls. The original humans on this continent wrote on walls. Politicians put up plastic signs and forget to take them down. What da diff. Expression is a human trait, so is hatered of others actions. Which one is more easily eradicated ? Which one is healthier for the human condition ?
I have a wall, that I can put whatever the f I want. And if you arrested kidz wanna recolor it for me e-mail me at
and if you wanna night shot go on ahead. Wish someone could bring a ladder and color the top.
The space is at 45th and Guadalupe, the alley wall on the A&R store. Please leave the rest of the alley alone.
And if Studio is listening... I owe you some paint.

Anonymous said...

I'm surprised to read your take on this, Grits. Just because the city can paint over the trash, doesn't make it not worth pursuing. One detective does not sound like much resource compared to a paint crew of 4 to 6. It's an expensive crime. You're not taking into account the businesses and homeowners who paint over their own. Plus, if it's such a great means of expression, why don't the taggers tag their own home, their own fence, their own mailbox, their own car. Oh wait, they still live with mommy and daddy and mommy and daddy probably wouldn't like that. It looks trashy and makes an area look crime-ridden, which if left tagged, will invite crime. (There are numerous published studies and books on this.) It's damaging someone else's property no matter how "cute" the tag might be. Go get some paper or actual canvas! If this is such great "art" then do it right. Oh, and the argument about cavemen...well, killing and stealing have been around since the beginning of mankind, too, so does that mean those should be acceptable just like primitive cave drawings?

Anonymous said...

In my previous post, I should have said that leaving tags up would invite "other" or "additional" crime. I would not want to leave the impression that tagging is not a crime, because it is. Any time you damage someone else's property, you've committed a crime, and I really don't think any crime is a small thing. Yes, there are plenty of worse things, but that does not mean ignore the other crimes.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I never said ignore the crime. OTOH, your retort about why don't they paint their own house, etc., may make you feel better but simply contributes nothing toward a solution.

Cities are pursuing the enforcement only approach now. If you think the outcome is satisfactory, then there's no need to do anything more. If you think current anti-graffiti approaches AREN'T working, which is the general consensus, maybe it's time to try something else.