Friday, December 17, 2010

Dallas' new 'graffiti czar' looking past criminal justice approaches

Dallas' new 'graffiti czar' (a moniker he's rejected which will inevitably stick) is a lawyer named John Barr who's willing to think outside the box, including defying the City in the past with overt vigilantism, illegally painting over graffiti without property owners' permission (which some argued was effectively the same thing as the graff writers were doing). After a while, though, the city council changed their tune and now they're collaborating with Mr. Barr. His volunteer slot appears to have been created to decide how to spend a $100K donation from the owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team. According to Unfair Park, though, Barr is:
not sure how he'll spend Mark Cuban's $100,000. Sam [Merten] reports back that Barr's big thing is getting citizens to drive around with their own cans and buckets of paint to cover up graffiti wherever they see it (after they take pictures of the offending graffiti, of course). Because right now, Barr says, the city's not doing a terribly good job of going after scofflaws. Or, as he told Sam: "I don't think my mom or your mom needs to drive by and read 'Fuck you.' It's insulting." Rogue!

He says he'll likely ask other businesses to do what he's been doing since moving from downtown to Oak Cliff in '03 -- a so-called bucket brigade. As he told Sam, he wants people to take responsibility "and put a log on the campfire." Barr also wants to establish an area where graffiti is permitted, so taggers have a place to do their thing. Because, he said, truth is he's not sure eradicating graffiti is "an attainable goal." Which won't stop him from doing his damned best. 
This blog has argued for years in favor of the non-criminal justice approaches to graffiti championed by Mr. Barr: Rapid cleanup at non-permission sites combined with providing areas where graffiti is permitted. Clearance rates for the offense are so low that simply relying on arrest and harsh punishment for graffiti isn't nearly as much of a disincentive as if the tags are painted over hours after they appear. Taggers are generally looking for spots where their work will "ride"; deny them that and the risk-reward ratio for the activity quickly changes.

I also welcomed his suggestion about establishing "an area where graffiti is permitted" in the city, but would caution that the whole stand-alone graffiti wall concept has had, at best, mixed success. Too often the neighborhoods to and from them also are subjected to tagging and they don't provide enough space, in enough diverse, visible areas, to siphon off graff writers if the city has a significant number of them. However, this blog has hypothesized that there's another, simpler method to provide permission areas in ways that bypass the shortcomings of stand-alone graffiti walls. As mentioned in September,
I've been advocating for quite a while on Grits that government begin to identify blank, under-utilized portions of the city landscape - underpasses, concrete drainage areas, even the backside of street signs - and allow street art there on a permission-based basis. ... Ideally, in this writer's opinion, the practice should be widespread, with available 'canvases' across every city and content only limited by obscenity laws and disallowing hate speech and known criminal street gang references.
There are other things such a "graffiti czar" could do, such as coordinate between local artists and private property owners who want to commission free or paid murals on outward-facing walls as a prophylactic against graffiti. Partially because it's been the only approach in the past and so it's efficacy has somewhat maxxed out, spending more on police manpower, much less jails, courts and prisons, gets you limited bang for the buck compared to the much cheaper and more effective graffiti abatement methods of rapid cleanup and providing legal outlets. I wish the new "czar" luck, both in his new volunteer gig and in his (assuredly hopeless) effort to stop people from using the word "czar."

UPDATE (Dec. 20): My old college mate Robert Wilonsky excerpted the last three graphs from this post at the Dallas Observer's Unfair Park blog, and commenters offered up some interesting links. One pointed us to a permission wall project called the Venice Art Walls at Venice Beach, CA, which is "open to painting during daylight hours on weekends and City of Los Angeles holidays only." Another commenter said that Philadelphia reaches out to the "offending artists" and tries to rope them into the city's "Mural Arts Program," adding that "the murals are everywhere and many are gorgeous." Yet Another nominated this underpass near their home as a candidate for permission-based art, and it's hard to disagree just about any attempt at intentional art would be an improvement.

See related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

This campaign will work about as good as Dwaine Caraways pull up your pants..It's the same loser mexican and black gangbangers that are sagging there pants down their ass and are tagging walls when there not out stealing or robbing..Dallas is full of future useless scums of society just waiting to get a TDCJ # assigned to them..

Anonymous said...

I wish Barr lots of luck with this. He should confound everyone by insisting they spell it tsar, if they must use it. When did it become vogue to start naming people czars, anyway? Bennett?

Anonymous said...

We should give in to the thugs who smear public places with spray paint. Mexico is permissive with their thugs and they now completely control the country. Just give up-or celebrate the changes. Hey, what's so wrong with living in a gang controlled and smeared country?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Hmmmm ... so the Mexican cartel wars stem from the country's permissive stance on graffiti? Brilliant hypothesis: The cause and effect is so crystal clear! Especially since we know the real cause can't possibly be failed drug and immigration policies. That qualifies for a Saturday Night Live news segment of Seth Myers' "Really?".

And just to say it, the amount of graffiti currently out there that folks are complaining about is what results from the current "enforcement only" policy, which focuses on harsh punishment of taggers and fines for victims if they don't clean up in X days. Rapid cleanup and funneling graff to permission sites as an add on to enforcement (Mr. Barr isn't saying DON'T arrest people, just expanding tactics) much more directly benefits victims of graffiti, who 10 days after their victimization, under the current set-up, transform by law into offenders subject to fines. So the tactics suggested in this post at least have the benefit of not piling onto taxpayers and property owners, if you care about that sort of thing.

Also, vis a vis gangs and permission sites: Just make it a rule that all obscenity and graff related to criminal street gangs gets buffed, even in permission areas. We're already spending time and money on police, courts and even prison space enforcing graffiti laws, to little overall effect. Why not instead spend time enforcing rules at permission sites with a paint brush, just like bloggers have to moderate comments? Those would be clear rules with lots of precedent and relatively easy for moderators, editors, whatever you want to call them, to distinguish.

Anonymous said...

It's just graffiti. The state isn't going to collapse just because a few degenerates painted the 'f' word on a bridge. Keep a sense of proportion, for chrissakes. If you must get all hot and bothered by some slang on a wall, have the young jackass who painted it clean it up.