The lowdown on the fight against “tagging”

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It’s been almost a year since the Minneapolis City Council took a swipe at the city’s graffiti problem, approving an amendment to city ordinances requiring that certain paint materials popular with the graffiti-inclined to be closely guarded or locked away by retailers.

A grant agreement was approved with the National Council to Prevent Delinquency for a pilot $42,500 anti-graffiti enforcement program and support was given to a state legislative agenda for “creating tougher penalties for offenders convicted of tagging, including suspending of driver’s licenses.”

So, how has it all worked out? Are South Minneapolis fences and garage doors, the canvasses of local “taggers,” a term used for those who like to put their mark on public spaces, ready for the Parade of Homes?

According to a review of recent posts in local issue-oriented websites and a quick run-down of recent city statistics, the jury may still be out. The number of total graffiti cases processed by the City in 2006 was 17,566, dropping 23 percent in 2007 to 13,442.

Last year, almost twice the number were on public property, 8,664 cases compared with 4,654 on private property. Out of the total, 4,467 property owners did their own cleanup. The top 10 neighborhoods with reported graffiti last year were all in South Minneapolis, with the Whittier neighborhood coming in No. 1 with 842 cases. Powderhorn was 2nd with 789, Central had 751, Lowry Hill 647, Marcy Holmes 554, Seward 388, Midtown Phillips 356, Standish 331, East Phillips 309 and Longfellow 291.

Figures for graffiti cases brought before the City in the last two years show 19 cases of misdemeanor graffiti charged for all of 2006 and 36 cases of misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor graffiti charged by the middle of October 2007.

“Interestingly, the total amount of graffiti hasn’t changed all that much from 2006 to 2007, but the number of days to clean it up has dropped dramatically,” wrote 9th Ward Council Member Gary Schiff in a recent “Minneapolis Issues Forum.”

“The City shouldn’t brag too much because the number of days to remove graffiti is still far too long for what we expect in our neighborhoods, but the progress in just 12 months is impressive,” said Schiff. “In 2006, graffiti orders were open on average for 37.5 days. In 2007, the number fell to an average of 19 days,” Schiff noted. A Star Tribune article from last year gave an estimated cost of graffiti removal to taxpayers in 2006 at more than $2.5 million.

Schiff was the author of last year’s “more penalties” anti-graffiti amendment, but his forum post provided hints of alternate strategies to graffiti relief besides packing away the spray paint and criminalizing the painters.

“New city grants for murals and other innovative solutions will be available for neighborhoods this spring,” Schiff said. “Also … the City launched a new online resource, a ‘Graffiti Solutions’ web page that I helped create to allow residents to share their own innovative mural, art and landscaping responses to graffiti. Neighborhood artists have been busy and their creative responses are fun to see! The wall of hubcaps in Powderhorn is one of my favorites!” Schiff said.

“I think that the murals are a good response for spaces that have been real problem areas for graffiti in the neighborhoods,” said 9th Ward Council Associate Heidi Quezada. “We also used the money from the anti-graffiti pilot program to hire local teens for a sting operation in local stores. Hardware stores get the message when they’re hit with a fine,” Quezada said. The City has banned the sale of spray paint to minors for some time and new rules require clerks to ask for ID with every sale.

According to Deputy Director of Minneapolis Regulatory Services, Ricardo Cervantes, all 55 of the retail stores in the city that are sellers of “spray paint, paint sticks or broad-tipped markers” were tested last July by the under-age buyers his department had hired as bait, “to get a sense how things were going,” Cervantes said. Thirteen $200 citations were issued the first go-around. When the sting was run a second time one month later on the 13 original violators, two $400 fines were given out. A final recheck of all 55 stores in October totaled nine more $200 fines.

“I think that there was one store that got hit all three times,” Cervantes said.

Yet the mural idea that Schiff touched upon is one that could deal with a problem as old as time with 21st century thinking.

“Graffiti has been around for thousands of years and is not likely to disappear in the foreseeable future,” says a review of psychological and sociological literature on graffiti. “This is the great strength of graffiti research, that it enables us to tap into the minds of everyday people and discover people or ideas that may otherwise be silenced.”

Is graffiti a medium of intellectual expression and therefore art? If society demands graffiti, then should policy makers look for creative ways to merely bridle what is a creative instinct?

An article by Lydia Howell in last June’s (our own now-defunct) Pulse of the Twin Cities reported on a visiting, young talent called Lady Pink to the “B-Girl Be–Women and Hip Hop Summit,” organized and hosted by Intermedia Arts in South Minneapolis. Pink reportedly began a career, which now includes gallery exhibits and museum shows, by “tagging the New York City subway trains.”

“I think that instead of stiffer penalties for graffiti writers we should embrace the culture and give them legal places to do their art,” reads one Topix.com post written after Schiff’s proposal to lock up paint and increase painter punishments first went public. “No writer wants to get caught, so if we give them places to paint they are much less likely to go out on the street,” the anonymous poster reasoned.

But other’s comments calling for increased penalties identified what has become the dark side of expression-by-graffiti—”I see a lot of graffiti,” said one, “And that isn’t art. That’s gang-signing.”

“A lot of community centers closed in the ’80s, and kids were walking around with no direction, nothing to do,” said Dave Allender, an FBI executive fellow, in a report on gangs to the Justice Department’s Weed & Seed program staff. “It was during this time that we started to see more kids spraying graffiti on our public buildings—for them, it was an act of defiance. Gangs, on the other hand, use graffiti to talk to each other, sending encrypted messages showing turf claimed and communicating threats to rival gangs,” Allender said.

Where does all this leave property owners who are less concerned with whether the new design that’s been applied to the alley-side of their garage is vandalism or art, than with the prospect of being billed by the City for the materials and labor it takes to clean it up if they don’t remove it within 10 days?

“A free quart of graffiti removal solvent is available at all Minneapolis fire stations for removing graffiti from unpainted surfaces,” advises the City. “When graffiti is on a painted surface, the best course of action is to cover it with paint.”