End the war on graffiti

Costly and ineffective enforcement does not work

The controversy over urban graffiti is passionate and ongoing. On one side are those who argue that graffiti is a legitimate art form. The fact that private property is defaced in the process of its creation which uses public and private urban spaces for its canvas is secondary.

Opposing graffiti are those who view it as vandalism and its writers/artists as criminals. To this group the violation of personal property rights is enough to summarily dismiss any perceived benefits.

Calgary and many other cities around the world have taken the latter view and have declared war on graffiti. The city’s militant anti-graffiti policy is based on the contested “broken windows” theory of neighbourhood transition. Theoretically a broken window left unattended sends the message that people don’t care about the state of their neighbourhoods. That no one cares in turn invites more vandalism neglect and decay until eventually the neighbourhoods spiral out of control.

That theory focuses on the symptoms of urban decay — broken windows — without addressing its true causes which may include poverty lack of opportunity for meaningful work racial discrimination or other disadvantages. Graffiti does not produce unsafe places but rather unsafe places produce graffiti.

A “law-and-order” approach to graffiti is costly hard to enforce difficult to sustain and usually unsuccessful. As with the wars on drugs and terrorism escalating the war on graffiti increases the costs but it does not prevent graffiti from proliferating. Despite this loud voices on city council and from some segments of the public continue to urge a hard-line approach.

On October 19 and 20 the Calgary Police Service and Animal & Bylaw Services will host a conference entitled “The Anti Graffiti Symposium (TAGS).” The symposium’s stated purpose? To “share and gain knowledge in the area of graffiti-vandalism prevention enforcement investigations and charging.”

Among the conference’s topics are: the psychological profile of the “graffiti vandal;” the motivations of graffiti writers; graffiti culture; new anti-graffiti products; and why jurisdictions should conduct annual city-wide graffiti damage assessment surveys. Several sessions are solely for law enforcement personnel.

Ironically the existence of the conference is evidence of its own futility. After all such meetings wouldn’t be necessary if anything being discussed there actually solved the problem.

The truth is that there is little new in anti-graffiti strategy and tactics. In a 1993 note to the University Of Michigan Journal Of Law Reform Marisa Gómez outlined the major issues in the graffiti controversy. The 70-page article provides insight into the different kinds of graffiti the varied motivations of the writers a discussion of anti-graffiti strategies and tactics and an assessment of the success or failure of these methods. Judging by the presentation summaries on the TAGS website little is known now that was not known then.

Gómez concluded that standard anti-graffiti tactics have at best been only marginally successful. More often they fail. In fact the only graffiti abatement strategies that have ever achieved sustained success are those that pursue a program of compromise by sharing urban space. Many others share this view. Yet not surprising these approaches are missing from TAGS.

The reason anti-vandalism policies have failed claims Gómez is because they ignore the motivation behind different types of graffiti. Clearly some graffiti is criminal. But gang graffiti hate graffiti and pornographic or obscene graffiti is without question of a different ilk than the graffiti of the teen tagger or midnight muralist. Punks who perpetrate hate crimes using graffiti as a medium should be the object of tough enforcement. But for the rest — the majority of graffiti writers — there are more effective and much cheaper solutions.

How might this work? In exchange for a regime that recognizes graffiti as an art form provide legal space for graffiti art to be expressed and restrict graffiti writers to these specified places by agreeing to some guidelines. This approach redirects unwanted graffiti in unwelcomed places to more accessible locations.

But where would it go? That depends on how we honour the promise to accept graffiti as legitimate art. If it is art then it deserves to be exhibited in its natural context. It also means that like all art it can be provocative. Some people loathe it some love it and others don’t care. The point is graffiti art like all art should not be dismissed simply because it doesn’t appeal to individual tastes. As long as the material is not obscene or discriminatory it has a place in our cities.

The city’s website asserts that “Graffiti is an eyesore that ruins the natural and architectural beauty of a city.” I and many others disagree. To me well-done graffiti art adds warmth and humanity to urban landscapes that all too often have the charm of a hospital ward. Sanitized and efficient perhaps but not a place one wants to spend much time.

See more graffiti photos from Geoff Ghitter here .