The Legality of Graffiti

Did you know that graffiti is a felony? It’s not only illegal, but it ranks right up there with murder. Los Angeles is trying to pass a measure against allowing street artists to gather in groups–even without evidence of illegal activity. To me, this is one of those cases where the legal system needs to get its temperature taken, because something doesn’t make sense.

Of course there are reasons why graffiti should be against the law. Yes, poor little old ladies cry themselves to sleep because their houses got tagged again after they just painted them. But the force with which the law cracks down on graffiti is vastly disproportionate to the actual badness of the act: after all, graffiti, especially on public structures like freeways, neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. Explanations of why graffiti is so bad never seem very convincing:

First, graffiti is a drain on your tax dollars. Funds that could be used for schools, roads, parks and other community improvements are used for graffiti clean up. Second, graffiti decreases a resident’s feeling of safety in a community. Neighborhoods with graffiti see a decrease in property values and loss of business growth and tourism. Finally, graffiti sends a signal that nobody cares, which attracts other forms of crime and street delinquency to the neighborhood. –City of San Antonio

I’ll grant the third point, but the graffiti itself doesn’t cost money–it’s the city’s desire to keep getting rid of it that costs. Similarly, I think the decreased sense of safety is due in large part to law enforcement’s exaggeration of its terrible motivations and consequences, leaving people to imagine that those hard-to-read letters must spell out some gang sign or racial slur, rather than, as is most commonly the case, the initials of a crew of street artists (COA, one that I’ve seen pretty often, stands for “Crime Or Art?”).

The last point is a paraphrase of the Fixing Broken Windows theory, a justification of zero-tolerance policies. I’m generally not a fan of this unprovable theory, but in the case of graffiti it seems particularly unjustified. Yes, letting some graffiti slide will probably lead to more graffiti, but it’s a big leap to conclude that graffiti will inevitably lead to other crimes as well, and I defy anyone to provide an example that can’t be explained by the correlation/causation fallacy.

Anti-graffiti programs make it sound like something out of the deepest pit of Hell:

There are four types of graffiti – tagging, satanic/hate, gang, and generic (non-threatening messages like “Bobby loves Suzy” or “Class of 2000”). –City of San Antonio

Satanic graffiti gets a category to itself? I’ve never seen so much as a pentagram so far. And there’s no category for political/activist (street artist Shepard Fairey created the Obama “Hope” poster), nor for artistic (pictures drawn for their aesthetic value)? It’s pretty obvious that the City of San Antonio made up those categories to make graffiti seem as heinous as possible.

Signs to look for:

  • Blood-shot eyes from being out all night tagging and being exposed to toxic fumes from markers and paint –City of Sacramento

That’s not a graffiti artist. That’s the Eye of Sauron.

So what’s going on here?

There’s an element of racism, ageism, and classism. Laws are passed by well-off older white people, and that’s not who does graffiti. But I don’t think that is the main factor at work here.

I think the main problem is simply that lawmakers are so far disconnected from graffiti artists that they can’t comprehend why they do what they do or how to either discourage or redirect their efforts. This shows up the worst when the government tries to work with the artists. Take the beautiful, beautiful case of Wadebridge, Cornwall, where the city council erected a blank wall for graffiti artists to use instead of defacing other property. What happened next? See for yourself.

Notice the reaction. The police sergeant who built it fumes, “But it is now going to cost the taxpayer, as we will have to crime it, investigate it and paint over it.”

Wait, they’re going to paint over what got put on the graffiti wall? And not just in a “Ha, ha, very funny” sense, but they’re actually investigating it as a crime? How is it even possible to vandalize a graffiti wall, short of knocking it down? The message wasn’t profane, gang-related, or even really hateful. Why would anyone write on the wall if it was just going to get censored? And, if graffiti on the wall runs the risk of being a crime, why would anyone tag the wall instead of somewhere else?

There are some suspicious details, too. The artist “sneaked behind a security fence.” Why was there a security fence around the graffiti wall? The stodgy police sergeant adds, “To paint graffiti on the wall and remain anonymous shows this person has no courage.” Isn’t anonymity a standard part of graffiti art? Artists were probably supposed to register, submit a proposal, and get it approved by the city council before putting anything on the wall. At any rate, this wall and the restrictions necessary to paint on it without getting prosecuted are obviously the opposite of the freedom and self-expression so fundamental to street art.

Perhaps graffiti is one of those cases where we just need to step back and take a deep breath. Calm down. Yes, there are negative aspects to the activity, but let’s stop reacting like they’re eating babies or something.

UPDATE:  Jordan pointed out that there was a security fence because the wall was not yet open.  Okay, but I’m betting that, even if the wall were legally open for use when it was tagged, there would still be the same hissy fit.

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Image by LA’s CBS crew, found here.

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