Graffiti in Southeast Portland (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
In Tuesday's New York Times, Adam Nagourney reports that graffiti is on the rise in host of American cities, including Los Angeles, Nashville and Portland. At the same time, however, other major cities like New York and Seattle report that their vigilant anti-graffiti campaigns have so far held the spread of tagging at bay. All this comes as the economy continues to struggle (one stastical cause of graffiti) yet crime rates (a perceived result) remain historically low.
"In Portland, officials said taggers from other communities were defacing their property," Nagourney reports. “We’re arresting more people from out of town,” Marcia Dennis, Portland's graffiti abatement coordinator, told him. “For every one we get cleaned up, something else takes its place.”
Although to most people and in most situations graffiti is of course a crime and an eyesore, it also can be an intruiging phenomenon to deconstruct.
There is its connection between lawlessness and art, for example. In Los Angeles, an exhibit on graffiti at the Museum of Contemporary Art earlier this year is being blamed for glorifying and encouraging taggers as the city's buildings and infrastructure have increasingly become festooned with spraypaint. There are also graffiti artists who have become acclaimed gallery artists, from Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat in the 1980s to Banksy and Sheperd Fairey in more recent years. What's more, graffiti isn't a new urban phenomenon. It dates to ancient Greece and Rome. The preserved ruins of Pompeii revealed graffiti in the form of poems and bawdy phrases, not unlike today's public bathrooms. The Vikings and Mayans also wrote graffiti.
Graffiti in Southeast Portland (photo by Brian Libby)
In the Times story, Dennis acknowledges the influence: “The rush is addictive, and these guys don’t quit. They all think they’re going to end up being fabulously wealthy graffiti artists."
Graffiti also symbolizes the darkest days of the American city, from the 1960s-80s, when middle class investment left for the suburbs and central cities were overwhelmed by crime, a lack of investment captital and an eroding of infrastructure. When I arrived for college in New York City in 1990, for instance, most subway cars were still covered in spray paint. Along with the uncollected tumbleweed-like garbage strewning the streets and the all too common smell of human fluids, it contributed to a sense that my eastern pilgrimage was a big mistake.
Relatedly, though, during the 1990s New York and other cities began to revolutionalize crime fighting by applying the "broken windows theory," introduced in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling and furthered in Kelling's 1996 book Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities. It argues that maintaining ordered and well-conditioned aesthetics in a given neighborhood -- repairing broken windows, painting over graffiti -- actually helps decrease crime, or at least helps prevent an escalation in crime. The thinking goes that criminals are looking for destitute areas in which they can commit crimes with less fear of reprisal. This, in turn, explains why for some graffiti is far more than an eyesore or vandalism, but a potential tipping point for an otherwise healthy neighborhood or district becoming riddled with crimes greater than those committed with spraypaint.
Although efforts began back in the late 1980s, after taking office in 1994 New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (in tandem with police commissioner William Bratton) had the police more strictly enforce the law against subway fare evasion, public drinking, urination, and squeegee men wiping windshields of stopped cars and demanding payment. According to a 2001 study of crime trends in New York rates of both petty and serious crime fell suddenly and significantly, and continued to drop for the following ten years.
Graffiti in Southeast Porltand (photo by Brian Libby)
A 2005 Harvard University study in Lowell, Massachusetts also found a 20 percent drop in police calls in a neighborhood where authorities placed added attention on picking up trash, fixing streetlights, discouraging loiterers, making more misdemeanor arrests, and expanding mental health services and aid for the homeless.
Some of the explanation for the national graffiti upswing is that cities have curbed graffiti-fighting programs. Los Angeles's $7.1 million graffiti eradication budget was cut 6.5 percent as of July 1. Yet cities that have not cut back are also experiencing increases. Part of that can be blamed on the economy, of course. Teens, among the largest demographic contributors to graffiti, are out of school. And lots of adults are out of work with little to do and seeing that police forces, themselves sometimes experiencing layoffs and budget cuts, may be on sprees amidst unemployment and sunny weather.
Although vandalism is vandalism, I believe there is a distinction to be made between the somewhat artful, stencil-based graffiti common today and tagging that denotes gang territory. We may not like the idea of skateboard-riding kids spraypainting pictures onto walls, but that is decidedly less dangerous than organized groups of drug-dealing gangs violently fighting for control of streetcorner sales.
Even so, the broken-window theory is a necessary but delicately balanced endeavor.
The Times reports that Portland neighborhoods like Brooklyn will be stepping up foot patrols. “We will have four or five people starting out once a week around dusk walking the neighborhood with a graffiti cleanup kit,” Michael O’Connor, the head of the Brooklyn Action Corps, told Nagourney.
Yet it may be wrong to be too vigilant. Portland, after all, is celebrated for being a tolerant city where heavy-handed police action isn't tolerated. If we have the police aggressively hunting down petty criminals, it could also result in the kind of over-zealous harrassment that has led to wrongful deaths like those of James Chasse and Aaron Campbell, or reduce the influx of creative professionals moving to the city for its laid-back attitude and progressive socio-political environment.
I don't think there can ever be a definitive yes-or-no answer abut graffiti. If you're a property owner and somebody spraypaints on your property, there's little plausible response but to be upset about it, and to paint over the tag as soon as possible. Yet I also cringe at those such as Los Angeles police detective Ramona Findley, who head's the department's graffiti task force and in Nagourney's Times story blames graffiti on pop culture.
"The art world has accepted it," she tells Nagourney. "People make money from graffiti T-shirts. I was in Wal-Mart on Easter, and I saw graffiti Easter eggs.”
Graffiti in downtown Portland (photo by Brian Libby)
It's not that simple - artists are not the entirety of graffiti vandals, nor are famous artists who started with graffiti without value. We have to accept the fact that from Basquiat to Banksy, Haring to Fairey, graffiti is an expression of self. Just becuase it's done lawlessly doesn't mean that something of value doesn't ultimately come out of graffiti sometimes.
So what would I do if there were graffiti on my building? As it happens, there was some very recently. I live in a mixed-use building with an apartment, a restaurant and a dance studio. Two weeks ago there appeared on the sole windowless portion of the facade a stenciled graffiti image of a woman holding an umbrella. Immediately I felt uncomfortable thinking of someone vandalizing my building just a few feet from my bedroom window. But I also took a moment to admit to myself that the vandalism was not without attractiveness. I wondered what the tagger hoped for in the future: an art career or a pipe hit, a job or a clean rap sheet, a raise on his allowance or good grades in the upcoming semester. Before I could make a decision about the graffiti, our landlord had it covered.
The only answer I could resolve was that the graffiti, and its author, would remain a mystery. And therein may lie the reason for society's wide spectrum of feelings about graffiti: with its perpetrators anonymous, the tagging acts as a blank canvas onto which we project our feelings about entertwined issues of crime and safety, art and expression. Graffiti is a kind of Rorschach-like code language forced upon us, in which our explanatory narrative is never as complete as we want it to be.
When I wrote two years ago about a photography exhibit of graffiti art, the comments were mixed but generally respectful of property rights. "People that find something appealing in this destructive use of spray paint could do society and taxpayers a big favor by condemning unauthorized painting and inviting the 'pirates' they seem to admire, over to their own property to paint with permission from the owner," wrote one commenter, WS. "Completely condemning a entire form of art based on one wing of that art's practice (idiot tags by idiots on inappropriate places) seems reactive and does not really help anything," wrote another commenter, Josiah. But one commenter also referenced Portland's famed Lovejoy Columns, which started out as illegal vandalism (painting columns of the Lovejoy bridge ramp) but now is displayed proudly outside a Pearl District condo as outsider art.
Meanwhile, what do you think? Does graffiti warrant zero tolerance, romantic enabling, or something in between?