Graffiti: the cause and the cure

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Mark Welna knows something about graffiti. The owner of the original Welna Ace Hardware store in the Phillips neighborhood also owns several rental properties on the South Side and knows the drill when his buildings get tagged. “I paint over it right away; that’s the most effective deterrent,” he says. “They paint over that the next day, then I paint it again, they tag it again, then I paint over that, they tag it again, I paint it the next day . . . after a few times, they give up.”

Or that’s the theory, at least. In reality, graffiti in Bridgeland and beyond has proliferated during the past decade to the point where city officials are scrambling just to stay ten steps behind. In addition to staffing and budget increases, there are moves to restrict the sale of spray paint, force property owners to clean it up more quickly, and educate the public about the hazards of the taggers’ game.

Graffiti is the number-one complaint received by the city’s 311 operators. Through the first eight months of this year, property owners have reported nearly 9,500 tagging incidents, an increase of about 1/3 from the last eight months of 2005. And while Minneapolis police arrest one tagger every three days, the paint keeps spraying. “There are tens of thousands of complaints on Lake Street alone for graffiti damage,” says City Council Member Gary Schiff (Ward 9).

Cleaning up
On Sept. 25, the city began sending out contractors under the auspices of Solid Waste and Recycling in the Public Works Department to locate and eradicate graffiti. According to spokesperson Angela Brenny, the department has taken over the responsibility from the city’s Housing Inspections Department, a move she calls a “win-win” for the city, as it efficiently expedites graffiti cleanup, one of the most successful ways of deterring graffiti incidences.

The Minneapolis SW&R sends letters to property owners ordering them to remove the graffiti within 10 days; if they don’t comply, contractors have the authority to go on private property and remove or paint over the graffiti, at the property owner’s expense. No longer do property owners have the option of barring city contractors from coming on their property to clean up after the taggers.

Under the new rules, abatement will occur within a couple weeks of the city viewing and photographing graffiti as they do inspections. If property owners can’t afford the price of cleanup, Brenny says they can get free paint at the Hennepin County Household Waste Transfer Station and free solvent at any fire station. Unpainted surfaces require removal with solvents; people should only paint over graffiti on painted surfaces.

Graffiti abatement used to be a long and complicated process. Housing Inspections would send a letter to the owner to remove the graffiti within a certain period. If they didn’t comply, they were fined. If they still didn’t comply, they were fined again, until eventually they’d end up in administrative court, facing ever-larger fines.

Between a third and a half of graffiti on public property is abated by Minneapolis SW&R; the rest of the cleanup is sent to other parts of Public Works, as well as outside agencies. And this summer, the effort got a boost from a bunch of local teens. As part of Graffiti Abatement and Neighborhood Beautification, 16 students between 16 and 19 years old went into low-income neighborhoods and removed public and private graffiti, as well as litter. They targeted 39 neighborhoods, recorded 1,407 graffiti spots, of which they abated 903 and referred 504 to someone else.

In August, Schiff sponsored an ordinance supported by the Lake Street Council that would ban the sale of spray paint to minors and require retail stores to keep spray cans stored behind locked glass, in storage rooms, or behind the counter. But after a particularly heated public hearing, the ordinance has stalled while the city awaits a $40,000 grant from the Minnesota Retailers Association to fund a compliance check program. This would basically be a sting operation, employing teens to go into stores and try to buy spray paint, as has been done with liquor and tobacco. Those stores that sell to a minor would be fined.

Locking up
Jim Welna supports the law banning the sale of spray paint to minors. But he doubts it will have much effect on the spread of graffiti. Employees at this Seward and Phillips hardware stores have been observing an informal ban for the past 30 years, he says. They keep spray paint near the cash register and they use a video camera. They keep metallic spray paints (often used by paint sniffers) in a storage room. While Welna Ace Hardware II does have some theft, it’s primarily small tools, not spray paint, he says.

“Locking up the paint is assuming taggers are under 18,” he says. “Taggers tend to be in their late teens to early 20s. They don’t see themselves as criminals.”

Sergeant Donna Olson, a city graffiti investigator, explains that taggers use other materials, such as large wide marker pens, liquid paint and stickers. And if they can’t steal spray paint from a hardware store, they’ll find another source, such as suburban stores, or garages.

At an August public hearing before the Public Safety and Regulatory Services Committee, Mark Welna suggested that the prohibitions proposed by the Schiff ordinance had been tried elsewhere, without success. “I read something I’d put together researching other cities. It didn’t work in the couple cities that tried it, such as Chicago,” he says. “What do we lock up next? Fat markers and paintbrushes? They’ll find something. Covering it up slows it down the most. Trying to educate landlords and homeowners helps.”

He agrees that a compliance check approach could slow down the problem, but wonders whether it would make a significant dent. “This would be like a band-aid,” he says.

Graffiti culture
Graffiti is a very complex issue, in terms of motives and viewpoints. There is, of course graffiti art, political graffiti and bias graffiti as well. Olson, the city’s graffiti investigator, who works out of the Fifth Precinct, says there are no simple patterns. “It’s hate. It’s vandalism. Some do it out of boredom, some don’t have inner drive and turn to vandalism. Some do it in opposition to authority,” she says. “Since I started in July 2003, I’ve found it’s mainly inner hate. Some of it’s just an excuse to vandalize and spread their nickname, tag.”

Regardless of the motivation, one of the primary reasons why taggers are so determined to paint is because it’s so hard to be caught and prosecuted. “It’s an easy crime,” she says.

And the behavior is condoned and encouraged by a tagger’s peers. “Most taggers have a close group of friends they call their ‘crew’—they’re kids going astray,” she explains. “Their peers are like their real family, more so than their relative family. Crews are their more real family, because their families have let them down.”

As troublesome as these taggers are, it’s the so-called “art taggers” who are multiplying the graffiti problem in certain parts of town. “Art taggers are all over the city, and mainly by Intermedia Arts and Lyndale and Lake,” she says. “All are treated the same. There are more art taggers, now.”

And she says Intermedia Arts is not helping matters. “Intermedia Arts is a private organization, so they can’t be touched,” she says. “They don’t set the tone that they don’t approve of vandalism in the city. I see them as one of the problems.”

One look at the Flickr photo sharing Web site and you’ll see graffiti art is deeply enmeshed in our culture. Innumerable people in Minneapolis alone go all over town shooting photos of graffiti and commenting on their favorite taggers; discussions ensue regarding where people can find more work by a certain tagger, or whether graffiti, or street art should be legitimized as a public art form. Taggers on Flickr share information about free walls where they can legally work, where the graffiti artist negotiates with the owner of a building to do sign painting in exchange for spraying their art on the wall. There is a thin line between graffiti and mural art, and opinions are as numerous as the taggers.

There are also “opposition, retribution and anti-government, anti-authority tagging,” says Olson. “Some say it’s for underground revolution. But that could be different kinds of revolution—for a new government, a new society . . . I don’t see it going anywhere.”

No matter the motivation, Olson has a hard time sympathizing with the behavior. “When I talk about political and anti-government graffiti, people say, ‘I only do it on public property, not private.’ When it’s anti-government, still they’re hating something,” she says.

She cites one example on 2700 Lyndale Ave., on a Mountain Dew mural. “That graffiti writer is getting paid. He said, ‘I don’t like the large corporations.’ That’s still political.”

And the prevalent “OBEY” stencils and stickers, called “snipe-posting,” means “question everything, trust no one.” That’s anti-government, in Olson’s book, but worse than that, it tends to be harder to remove. “It’s painting stencils and using stickers.”

Money for arts, but not for enforcement
With new surveillance systems going up in Cedar-Riverside and soon in the Phillips and Jordan neighborhoods, the number of taggers caught, arrested and convicted could change. The Police Department’s graffiti investigations unit is seeking funds to provide FlashCam 770 cameras to neighborhood organizatons. The cameras are good crime-fighting tools because they feature very clear lenses that allow operators to read license plates and recognize individuals. The cameras cost $5,000 each, and they are requesting $15,000 for three cameras that would go to neighborhood organizations for pilot projects, and additional funds for systems and staff to monitor the feeds. Olson monitors foundationcenter@foundation.com and expresses dismay in “seeing how much organizations fund the arts” but decline to help graffiti abatement programs. Foundations that have denied funding for the cameras, such as McKnight and Pillsbury, “have so much for arts culture, but not for graffiti prevention.”

Meanwhile, neighborhood organizations are growing more aware and active, and the city is striving for more solutions to prevent or reduce it. “I appreciate that there is more focused attention on this lately,” says Jim Welna. He’s president of the Seward Civic and Commerce Association, and they’ve hosted a number of officials to speak on graffiti recently as a way to help raise public awareness. He’s also supplied free paint to the Seward Neighborhood Group to help with clean-up efforts.

“We’re trying to keep the neighborhood beautiful,” he says. “This kind of graffiti destroys the appearance and livability. I don’t think taggers are aware of that.”

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