Herald Journal Columns
July 10, 2006, Herald Journal

Vandalism is not art


The language that we use to describe things is important.

Pollution is pollution, and crime is crime, and using other, more innocuous terms to describe these things can give the wrong impression.

There is a danger, for example, in describing graffiti vandalism as art.

Some misguided advocates would have us believe that the perpetrators are simply “expressing themselves,” and that the grubby little scrawls that they inflict on the rest of society are “art.”


When these people try to fill a void in their lives by scrawling their nugatory little offenses on public property, or on the private property of others, it becomes a problem for all of us.

Like so many pathetic little dogs slinking around marking their territory with objectionable material, they are committing offenses against society.

Graffiti generally falls into four categories; street gang graffiti, hip hop or “tagger” graffiti, hate graffiti, and generic graffiti.

Street gang graffiti, which constitutes an estimated 10 percent of graffiti nationally, is intended to mark territorial boundaries and convey messages to other gang members.

Hip hop graffiti is motivated by a desperate need of the perpetrators to gain acceptance from their peers.

This category, which represents about 80 percent of graffiti vandalism nationally, includes “tags.” A tag is a graffiti vandal’s moniker or signature, applied quickly and repetitively.

A “throw-up” is slang for a more elaborate tag, usually done in two or more colors. The name, at least, seems appropriate.

Hip hop graffiti also includes “pieces.” These are more elaborate, colorful scrawlings, and can take an hour or more to complete.

Graffiti vandals say this name is short for “masterpieces,” further illustrating their delusion that this is art.

Hate graffiti includes racial, religious, or cultural slurs.

Generic graffiti includes random markings, initials, declarations of affection (Billy loves Bitsie), or graduation announcements (Class of 2005).

Regardless of the category, graffiti is not art, it is an expression of contempt for the rest of society.

The people who engage in this antisocial behavior do not respect others. They do not respect the property of others. They very likely do not respect themselves.

Graffiti is not new.

Its history goes back at least as far as ancient Rome, where it has been reported that archaeologists have uncovered carved signs begging people not to write on walls.

It would not be surprising if some cave paintings were early examples of graffiti.

Today, however, the tools used by vandals are inexpensive and readily available, and for a few dollars worth of spray paint, a graffiti vandal can cause hundreds of dollars in damage in just minutes.

The best explanation I have heard describing modern graffiti comes from the British television comedy, “The Thin Blue Line.”

During a discussion of the graffiti problem, one of the police constables said, “I blame those awful fridge magnets.”

When asked why, he explained.

“I have seen it at my niece’s house. Every time her toddler does a nasty little scribble, it gets stuck up on the fridge, and everyone has to say how wonderful it is. So, young people grow up thinking that their stupid scribblings are somehow wonderful. So, they carry on scribbling, forever searching for that warm glow of appreciation that they used to feel when standing around the fridge.”

There seems to be much truth to this analysis. This is not to say that it is wrong to encourage the efforts of young people, but it does suggest that there are limits.

Not only is graffiti antisocial, it is illegal, and it is not, as some have suggested, a victimless crime.

Who are the victims?

Senior citizens on fixed incomes. They take pride in their property, and have worked hard all of their lives to maintain it, and now find themselves spending their limited resources to clean up graffiti.

Young people, who have purchased their first home. They now find the pride of ownership tainted by the need to come up with money to clean up graffiti.

Business owners, who have put everything they have into their businesses, and who are trying to maintain an attractive facility and earn a living.

We all are victims of this senseless vandalism.

It is not an urban problem. It is not confined to any region or country. It is everywhere.

Our enjoyment of the world around us is diminished by this visual pollution scrawled on buildings, bridges, public transportation vehicles, and anything else within reach.

Even if our own personal property is not affected, we pay a price, because our tax dollars are used to pay to clean up the vandalism on public property.

How much money?

Some estimates say that in the US alone, it costs $8 billion per year just to clean up graffiti.

How can we fight back?

Abatement is an essential part of any anti-graffiti program.

The most effective way to combat graffiti is to remove it immediately, within 24 to 48 hours.

In many cases, the simplest way is to paint over it.

Concerned citizens can organize a paint-out, and neighborhood watch groups can work together to keep neighborhoods clean.

Some communities offer recycling facilities, where leftover paint can be dropped off, and is available free of charge to residents, which can reduce the cost of repainting.

In some cases, it is possible to remove graffiti with solvents, depending upon the type of surface that is involved.

High-pressure washing and sand- blasting have also been used in some instances.

Enforcement is also a critical part of any program.

Laws governing graffiti vary by community.

In some communities, misdemeanor offenses can be stacked to allow for felony convictions of repeat offenders.

If the vandal is a minor, parents or guardians can be fined, ordered to restore property to its original condition, or pay restitution.

Education is another essential element. This includes community education, as well as education for parents and children.

Perhaps the biggest factor is changing the way we think about graffiti.

It is not about art. It is not about the rights of individuals to express themselves. It is vandalism.

The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can begin to clean up our neighborhoods and cities, and the sooner we can show graffiti vandals that the world is not their refrigerator.