Write Stuff, Wrong Place: Graffiti Wars

Patrick Boyle
May 1, 1998

Ben Velazquez stands on a sidewalk with a can of spray paint in hand and thing of beauty before his eyes: a blank warehouse wall. Giving Velazquez a clean wall is like giving Gretzky an empty net. Velazquez shakes the can until the ball rattles inside, then climbs a paint-splattered ladder that shivers like a nervous poodle. He leans toward the wall and commences to practice the family business.

“I learned from my uncle,” he says as he sprays streaks of yellow across the bricks. “We used to do subways.”

That was before the transit authority took away all the fun; today’s stainless steel subway cars are wiped free of graffiti in minutes, which is hardly worth dodging cops all night in the train yards. These days, Velazquez prefers the working conditions here: daytime hours, a dozen cans of paint at his feet, and no cops.

Not that the cops are happy. Velazquez is one of more than 500 graffiti writers who’ve come to this Queens neighborhood in the past four years to spray on walls — all of it legal, all of it part of an experiment called the Phun Phactory.

The idea: give graffiti writers a place to paint, and maybe they won’t scrawl so much on bridges, billboards and buildings. Supporters call it diversion; critics call it practice. It is the most controversial tactic in a growing nationwide battle between municipalities and graffiti vandals — most of whom are teens and young adults.

Philadelphia, San Francisco and Austin are among the cities trying to steer graffiti writers into legal art programs. But their effectiveness is always in question; the Phun Phactory exists only through the bullheadedness of the 41-year-old former plumber who runs it. In most towns, the prime strategies are punishing graffiti writers and frustrating them: California suspends offenders’ driving licenses. San Jose makes parents pay the cleanup costs. Police in Suffolk County, N.Y., set up stings to trap vandals on videotape. Judges are increasingly sentencing first-time offenders to cleanup duty, and repeat offenders to jail for up to six years. Towns from Pueblo, Colorado, to Lackawanna, New York, ban the sale of spray paint to anyone under 18. It doesn’t matter how old you are in Chicago: in 1992 the city forbade spray paint sales to everyone but contractors.

Why all this attention? Money, for starters. Just look at the graffiti removal bills: Los Angeles schools, $10 million; City of San Jose, $1.2 million; Philadelphia schools, $1.2 million; Phoenix, $750,000; Seattle, $2 million; New York City subways, $10 million. Jay Beswick, founder of the National Graffiti Information Network, calculates that removing graffiti costs governments and business $7 billion a year.

They are spending that money because while community leaders once saw graffiti as an irritant created by bored or disrespectful kids, they now see it as a symbol of community decay and harbinger of bigger problems. “There’s a pattern that develops when graffiti begins to show up in a neighborhood,” says Capt. Robert Moore, commanding officer of the Suffolk County, N.Y., community policing bureau. “First there’s a little bit. People kind of excuse it. Then the problem starts to grow. Graffiti vandals are prolific. You start to see other things — mailboxes vandalized, broken windows. You start seeing abandoned cars. Dumping complaints increase. Then you get hard core stuff — prostitution, emboldened drug pushers.”

It’s no coincidence that to kick-off the presidential summit on volunteerism last year, Philadelphia hosted a massive graffiti paint-over. Such clean-ups boost community spirit — but as Pablo Eisenberg of the Center for Community Change has noted, just buffing graffiti covers up the most visible manifestation of youth alienation without grappling with the environment that spawns it.

Why Spray?

Who expected such fallout from mankind’s oldest art form? At least our cave-dwelling ancestors sketched bison on their own walls. But ever since the invention of paint and markers, small-time vandals have been scribbling initials and symbols on public property. Sociologists race the roots of modern graffiti — colorful, big and ubiquitous — to 1970’s New York and the growth of Hip Hop culture. Artistically inclined rebels saw that they could win fame by spraying their nicknames (“tags”) on subway cars, which would tour the city like squealing canvases.

Graffiti crept nationwide in the 80’s, and “the 1990s has seen an explosion of graffiti in almost every major urban area,” says the National Council to Prevent Delinquency, an anti-graffiti project funded by the paint industry.

Victoria Wilson, a criminologist who has interviewed more than 100 graffiti writers over the past several years and designs anti-graffiti campaigns in Philadelphia, sees several types of writers: kids who are experimenting with simple scrawl, like their initials written in black; serious taggers, who often work in “crews” of three or more and develop intricate styles; and gang members.

Gangs account for just 10-20 percent of all graffiti, say police in several cities. When gang graffiti does show up, usually in the form of gang names and symbols, it can be trouble. The Gang Intervention Handbook (Research Press, Illinois, 1993) notes that gangs use graffiti to mark territory and to put down rival gangs, which sometimes leads to violent confrontations.

Even tagging crews, however, are getting violent, says Los Angles Police Officer Steve DelCastillo. “Some of them carry weapons. If you have a tagging crew trying to tag over another crew’s work, they will lay in wait and see who’s doing it. We’ve had shootings over this.” In 1995, a Los Angeles man confronted two men who were spray painting a highway overpass. He says one of them threatened him with a screwdriver, so he shot them. The youngest one, 18, died. The assailant was convicted on weapons charges and sentenced to community service.

Wilson estimates that about 50 percent of street-level graffiti is created by suburban youth in crews. “These writers are predominately white, male and between the ages of 14-25,” she wrote in a report presented in March at a municipal Waste Management Association conference. Not all graffiti writers are youths: last year police in several California cities broke up two graffiti gangs with the arrest of nine men aged 18 to 25. Most adult taggers say they began as teens.

The biggest reason to tag: “Fame,” says Wilson.

“What they are doing is advertising to their peers, ‘This is me, look at what I did,’” says Sgt. Mark Clark, supervisor of the Gang and Youth Unit of the Scottsdale, Arizona, Police Department. In tagging, as in real estate, location is everything: a billboard, a water tower, or a wall near school gives writers maximum exposure.

Couldn’t they just shoot for an A in art class? “This is a rebellious art form,” says Phun Phactory founder Pat DeLillo. A 16-year-old who goes by the tag “Bell,” and who is watching Velazquez paint the Phactory wall, says he tags partly because “it’s illegal” and there’s a risk of getting caught. “That’s the rush. It’s dope.”

Art Crimes, one of numerous Web sites where graffiti writers trade information, explains that writers have “a value system based on drawing ability and guts. Instantaneous gratification as the sun rises, and there’s you for everyone to see. The idea that writers [sic] know the ins and outs of the law and the transit they know secret places, urban retreats. They are a side effect of our culture, a hybrid of art and crime.”

Can Taggers Go Legit?

For adults who consider “art” and “crime” mutually exclusive, the primary weapon against this tagger mentality is removing the gratification. One of the most effective tactics is washing off or “buffing” (painting over) graffiti preferably within hours. “If you paint it over quickly, you take away their fun,” says Sgt. Clark of Scottsdale. That’s why New York’s subways are virtually graffiti-free today. Bell and Velazquez say they no longer “bomb” subways because their work doesn’t last long enough to enjoy.
Tough law enforcement has helped cut down on graffiti in some communities. Philadelphia has two judges handling graffiti cases (about 500 a year), so that they get to know repeat offenders and develop a consistent pattern of punishment. Sentences of several months in jail are common. In 1996, one 19-year-old got six years.

But is jail the right place for a 16-year-old like Bell, a mild-looking, smiling kid? “These aren’t hardened criminals,” Bob Hills, executive director of the Council to Prevent Delinquency, says of most taggers “These are savable kids.”

Police in Scottsdale try to save the neophytes through a strategy called Knock and Talk. “If we have indications that a kid in a house is doing graffiti, we knock on the door and talk to him and his parents,” Sgt. Clark says. “For more than half the kids, that’s all it takes. A lot of time mom and dad have the biggest hammer over these kids. The one who’s a good kid who’s been led down the wrong path by some friends, he’s gonna stop.”

Los Angeles police enroll neophyte taggers in a Juvenile Impact Program, which discussions about the crime, and an apology to the property owner. Sgt. Kohei Ishida of L.A.’s Central Area community police station says he often threatens to write “LAPD” on a tagger’s shirt — prompting vociferous objections that get the kids thinking about the concepts of property and permission. “These kids, they just act. They don’t think about what they’re doing. We try to get them to think.”

The department also has professional artists talk to the graffiti vandals about their abilities and about job opportunities in such fields as graphic arts. “We’re trying to cut them off before they get deeper into the criminal justice system, before they get hard core,” Ishida says.

One of the few scholarly studies of graffiti writers, published in the journal Deviant Behavior in 1990, concluded that “giving writers greater access to legal arenas for their writing is the key to reducing illegal HHG [Hip Hop Graffiti].” The best example of leaping into the legal art world is Tats Cru, Inc., formed by three Bronx taggers who now do graffiti-style ads for commercial clients. Those clients include Coca-Cola and Reebok. Their fees can reach $15,000.

Few writers, however, have the talent, drive or luck to turn spray painting into a career. Besides, many of them shun anything that smacks of mainstream art. “The least expensive strategy,” the graffiti study said, “is to set aside walls” for graffiti writers.

Naida Osline, director of the Huntington Beach (California) Art Center, gave it a try. Around 1990, she got to know writers who had been bombing a mile-long series of retaining walls along the Pacific Ocean. She turned the haphazard vandalism into a city program: writers got permits to paint certain sections of the “free wall,” and agreed to guidelines such as painting during the day and painting nothing else in the area.

In a year-and-a-half, Osline says, 1,000 people — about half under 18 — got permits. “I wanted to create a more positive environment for the kids to do artwork, in the hopes that that would ultimately be of more interest than going around scrawling on other stuff,” she says. Stopping graffiti “was more of a long term goal.”

She never reached it. Police Chief Ron Lowenberg says some of the artwork “glorified drugs and gang activity,” that the wall drew graffiti artists “from all over southern California,” and that the artists didn’t confine their work to the wall. “The neighborhoods around the free wall area were getting hit on a more frequent basis,” Lowenberg says. “In a couple of arrests we made, the individuals admitted that they were doing their tagging on the way to the wall.”

After boisterous public hearings, the city shut down the program.” There may have been an occasional tag” done illegally by people in the program, Osline says, “but is that worth telling a thousand kids you don’t have a space?”

For communities, the bottom line is the amount of unwanted “artwork” on the walls. “The notion of redirecting artistic talent is really ineffectual,” says Wilson. “There’s a certain rush to creating graffiti” that can’t be replicated in an officially sanctioned art program.

Phun Time

Back at the Phun Phactory, Bell and a 15-year-old friend say that while they might join the program, they would still do illegal tagging. Out of four current Phactory writers interviewed, only one — Velazquez — says he has stopped doing illegal work. Now in his mid-20s, Velazquez says he outgrew the crime and wants to go to art school to pursue a career.

“Some of them stop tagging, some of them don’t,” says DeLillo as he sits in a graffiti-adorned minibus that serves as the Phactory’s official vehicle. “This isn’t a criminal justice program. It’s an art program.” Ironically, DeLillo began his activism by trying to wipe out that art.

Recovering from back surgery in 1992, he got a good look at the aesthetic condition of his neighborhood. He didn’t like it, and launched Graffiti Terminators — a group of community residents and work-release inmates who set out to buff graffiti. To his surprise, DeLillo admired some of the artwork he saw. So he went looking for a place where graffiti artists could work legally. “They’re good kids. They just have nothing to do,” he says. “Why can’t we give these kids an outlet?”

Jerry Wolkoff let DeLillo invite artists to paint the outside walls of his Long Island City warehouse. Several neighboring business owners volunteer their walls also. “You’d probably have regular graffiti” anyway, says Stu Ehrenberg, who runs a Phactory-decorated auto repair shop. This way, he says, “you really have some beautiful artwork. It helps to improve the whole environment of the neighborhood.”

DeLillo says he runs the program on less than $25,000 a year, mostly from corporate sponsors, such as Citibank, donations from paint companies, and funds from the office of City Councilman Walter McCaffrey. The Phactory artists help their cause through community projects such as cleaning local schools and shoveling snow for senior citizens. DeLillo is an in-your-face New Yorker. Among his written rules: “Pat is in charge.” No gang art. No tagging in the surrounding neighborhood, or “your piece gets buffed!” Artists must show designs on paper before beginning a work. They get a permit for a section of the wall. Works usually stay up for about three months.

The relatively lengthy lifespan of the artwork is a major plus to doing a piece here rather than on a school wall. Another plus, says a veteran writer named “Dona,” is camaraderie, and learning from other writers. One young man named Danny says he came from Holland to spend a week learning the craft at the Phactory. Back home, he says, he does both legal and illegal graffiti.

That’s the problem, say critics — writers use free walls to learn from each other. Assistant District Attorney Mariela Stanton, who prosecutes graffiti vandals in Queens, praised DeLillo for trying to help, but was skeptical about any deterrent effect. “You let them do a wall, is that enough for them to say, ‘Now I understand the concept of permission?’” she says.

No, says Wilson. “If you just throw an art program on a bunch of kids, it doesn’t seem to work,” she says. “Art programs are extremely ineffectual unless they are combined with a very strong counseling and mentoring program.”

Sweden and Holland significantly reduced graffiti in some communities through art programs, according to a 1992 study published in Human Organization. It said Holland’s program “consists of setting aside board wall space next to bus stops . . . Each month these walls are judged and the winning writers receive monetary awards.”

Art and counseling programs have shown results with some kids in Philadelphia and San Francisco, but there are no longitudinal studies to demonstrate a statistical impact. No one in New York, the birthplace of modern graffiti, seems hot on giving people like DeLillo money to add counselors to his art program. So his goals remain modest: give youngsters something to constructive to do. Hope some of them enjoy it enough to lay off illegal tagging.

At least while they’re at the Phun Phactory, they’re not bombing a bridge. But will they bomb at midnight?

Resources

Pat DeLillo

Director

Phun Phactory

45-14 Davis St.

Long Island City, NY 11101

(718) 482-7486

www.phunphactory.org

Carlos Pineda

Art School Manager

Dougherty Arts Center

1110 Barton Springs

Austin, TX 78704

(513) 397-1456

Nila Rogosin

Program Manager

Artspan

934 Brannan St.

San Francisco, CA 94103

(415) 861-9838

Victoria Wilson

PhilaPride

1818 Market St., Ste. 3510

Philadelphia, PA 19103-3681

(215) 575-2210

Jay Beswick

The National Graffiti Information Network

P.O. Box 400

Hurricane, UT 84737

Bruce Feit

Graffiti Abatement Institute of North America

P.O. Box 2257

Phoenix, AZ 85001

(888) 887-8347

National Council to Prevent Delinquency

P.O. Box 16675

Alexandria, VA 22302-8675

(703) 7519569

Mural Arts Program

Philadelphia Dept. of Recreation

1600 Arch St., 5th Fl.

Philadelphia, PA 19103-2099

(215) 686-8364

Keep American Beautiful, Inc.

1010 Washington Blvd.

Stamford, CT 06901

(203) 323-8987

www.kab.org

Tom Ernst

Operation Clean Sweep

Los Angeles Board of Public Works

(213) 847-1798

“The World’s First Anti-Graffiti Web Page”

www.dougweb.com

Art Crimes — The Writing on the Wall

Pro-graffiti web page

www.artcrimes.com


Boyle, Patrick. "Write Stuff, Wrong Place: Graffiti Wars." Youth Today, May 1998, p. 56.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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