Shattering the Broken Window

Is the War on Graffiti an Extreme Makeover?

Graffiti, the art spawned by disenfranchised youth and insurgent artists, is facing an ever-growing mob of paintbrush-toting politicians. Once again officials are grabbing paint buckets and rollers and spewing rhetoric about graffiti’s demise. Nationwide they are conjuring newer, harsher policies, as well as spending millions in cleanup to combat graffiti.

In mid-October, Washington, D.C., Councilmember Adrian M. Fenty began pushing for a zero-tolerance graffiti policy. According to The Washington Times, "Fenty and other D.C. leaders are looking at innovative programs used in New York City and Los Angeles."

In New York those innovative programs include Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Anti-Graffiti Task Force. This past July, Bloomberg stated his task force was "making great strides in the fight against graffiti and its insidious effects on our quality of life." The confidence was due to a cleanup of 16.3 million square feet of graffiti, and a total of 468 graffiti-related arrests in one year, from July 2002 to this past summer. The main contribution Bloomberg’s force has made is to add all those young people to the thousands behind bars.

As for clean wall-space, their acreage is just a drop in the paint bucket. First, few things are better for writers than clean, freshly painted walls to write on (First Is King, remember fellas?). Second, 10.2 million of the 16.3 million square feet the city says it eliminated were "in the city’s industrial, commercial and maritime areas." The Department of Transportation painted over more than 4.1 million square feet, around highways, and 2.03 million square feet was cleaned by the Department of Parks and Recreation, according to the mayor’s office. The Department of Housing Preservation and Development part of the task force only removed about 14,500 square feet from 157 buildings. That means the residential areas in all five boroughs that look untouched are basically untouched.

Bloomberg made his anti-graffiti stance a significant part of his agenda since his campaign and he couldn’t have picked a better time. Due to the widely accepted, Giuliani-favorite, “broken window” theory—that a broken window left unfixed will encourage more windows to be broken—graffiti has been making its way to the top of many a city’s most wanted list. Politicians seem to believe that though graffiti is a small crime, it leads to major crimes.

Bloomberg has claimed, "Graffiti is an invitation for criminal behavior and it sends the message that we do not care about our City." His comments not only reek of broken-window influence but have also been obviously inspired by Executive Order 24. Implemented in July 1995 by Giuliani, Executive Order 24 blames graffiti for many of New York City’s ills and goes as far as claiming "tags have become a means of communication for drug dealers and gangs."

"The police and politicians and media don’t truly believe that," says REALS TCK, a local public school teacher as well as a prolific graffiti writer during the 1990s. "Using that rhetoric only justifies criminalizing youth. Real graffiti writers are not part-time drug dealers and gangsters. Writers are thinking about their next mission, how they’re gonna do it, where they’re gonna do it. They don’t have time for much else. And vice versa. If you’re selling drugs you’re concerned with money coming in, not writing on the wall."

Executive Order 24 also insists "graffiti-related vandalism depreciates the value of the property it defaces and costs the City and property owners millions of dollars in clean-up expenses each year."

"Graffiti does nothing to actually cause damage to the structure of a building," says STRYV, a 13-year graffiti vet. "It’s totally an issue of economics."

REALS agrees with the economic angle. "There’s this connection between what the government considers a crime and money. If the government can make money off of it, it's legal. Nike can completely co-opt graffiti culture and put a billboard on the wall with some wanna-be graffiti and since their paying for the spot, it’s totally acceptable. But if the art comes from the street, then it’s criminal."

Washington, D.C., isn’t the only city following New York’s lead. Thanks to Giuliani and Bloomberg, cities nationwide are waging an anti-graffiti war. Jacksonville, Texas, started a boot camp specifically for graffiti writers in September. The city offers local businesses free paintings done by camp inmates. In El Paso, graffiti on any school property, church, or cemetery was upgraded to a state felony in January 2002, regardless of the dollar amount of damage. In Milwaukee, lengthy prison terms of up to 50 months have been handed out for graffiti since the late 1990s. With the passing of Proposition 21 in California on March 7, 2000, 14-year-old graffiti writers can be charged as adult felons. Prop 21 makes any "gang activity," including graffiti (and hanging out with more than three of your friends for that matter) a felony and allows for children to be charged as adults.

In Atlanta, a strong anti-graffiti sentiment has developed as well. Lamar Willis, a first-term councilmember, passed an ordinance to get rid of outlaw street art, unsolicited murals, and even some commissioned murals. Unless the property owners get a permit for a solicited mural, it will be painted over at the property owners’ expense. It’s one thing when people don’t want scribble on their walls; it’s a whole 'nother thing when the city government pressures property owners to bar awe-inspiring pieces on their premises because doing so is supposedly showing support for graffiti. Willis’s ordinance became especially unpopular because it calls for $1,000 fines against owners who do not remove graffiti on their premises within 30 days of being notified.

On his website, Willis admits to being inspired by Giuliani and, of course, the "broken window" theory. Sadly, the councilman and Mayor Shirley Franklin are also using this theory for their coinciding agendas to get tough on panhandling, and even feeding the homeless in public. They want police who patrol Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta to turn away people who try to feed the homeless there. Franklin and Willis said the food drives were in violation of health codes and created public disturbances.

When politicians are out to get some ink by trying to wipe out the ancient art, their moves are arbitrary at best, and aimed primarily at commercial districts. They don’t include trying to clean up writers’ neighborhoods.

That’s one of several problems with the "broken window" theory—it usually only applies to the touristy parts of town. Inner city residents only know of their cities’ increased anti-graffiti efforts when their sons get stiff sentences for trying to have a voice.

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