How Graffiti Empowers Big Government

While advocates present graffiti as a liberating force, graffiti has also given local governments a pretext to expand their coercive powers.


Last week, the inaugural edition of the Zero Graffiti International conference was held in San Francisco. For three days, more than 150 attendees from 52 cities around the globe convened in a conference facility in the basement of St. Mary's Cathedral to discuss new enforcement technologies and successful abatement tactics, and to view the product lines of the 13 exhibitors at the vendor show.

From the looks of the crowd, there were few if any museum curators in attendance. Also seemingly unrepresented: Gallery owners, art book publishers, art critics, advertising agency creatives, collectors, American Studies graduate students, and all the other cultural tastemakers who have helped position graffiti as a glamorous means of grassroots resistance against the encroachments of the state and its corporate overlords. Instead, it was mostly just cops, city workers, concerned citizens, and sales reps hawking environmentally friendly graffiti barrier coatings.

At this point, the ways in which graffiti has trespassed its way into the world of mainstream culture and high art are well-documented. Artists like San Francisco's own Barry McGee get commissions from Vanity Fair and Cadillac to confer institutionally sanctioned street authenticity on prime urban real estate. Shepard Fairey merchandises dissent more doggedly than McDonald's merchandises hamburgers. Institutions like the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston mount graffiti exhibitions. A few days before the Zero Graffiti conference took place, the National Park Service paid at least two people to repaint graffiti at Alcatraz Island that had originally been applied by Indian activists in 1969, when they were occupying the island in an effort to reclaim it from the federal government several years after it had shut down the prison that once operated there.

What gets much less attention than the business of graffiti is the business of anti-graffiti. And yet it's quite impressive in its own right. Most estimates put annual spending on graffiti abatement in the U.S. at $15 to $20 billion. Drew Lindner, chairman of Stop Urban Blight, the non-profit group that organized the Zero Graffiti conference, put the total  at $17 billion in 2009. On a more local basis, Mohammed Nuru, Director of the San Francisco Department of Public Works (SFDPW), exclaimed in a speech at the conference that the city spends $20 million each year cleaning up unauthorized graffiti.

Few $17 billion industries strive to get smaller. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Drew Lindner is not just the chairman of Stop Urban Blight but also the president of This Stuff Works, a company that manufactures a line of graffiti abatement products. Or that the conference's speakers and attendees consistently expressed the belief that the War on Graffiti is a battle that requires constant vigilance and an increasingly proactive mindset.

And who, really, would argue with this? As oppressive as a city with zero graffiti would undoubtedly be, imagine its opposite, a city with zero graffiti abatement. Picture every doorway defaced with the artless scrawls of talent-free 12-year-olds. Picture every humble warehouse wall uplifted with bubble hearts and giraffes.

Like any form of creative expression, graffiti is characterized by the fact that the great majority of it is mediocre or worse. Indeed, perhaps because so much of it is done in the dark, under difficult conditions, quality control is a particular challenge for graffiti—it has probably unleashed more bad art on America than open-mike poetry slams, every incarnation of The Gong Show, and the NEA combined.

That makes the good stuff all the more amazing—but what to do about all the bad stuff? If graffiti went unchecked, eventually there'd be no space in the built environment for advertisements, no space for plain brick walls, no space for anything except aesthetically homogeneous amalgamations of riotous form and color. Talk about oppressive.

A bad poem is easy to ignore. A bad tag on the doorway of your favorite Starbucks is a daily assault on your sense of aesthetic well-being. The proliferation of such stuff gives city governments a credible rationale for creating graffiti abatement programs, and it gives entrepreneurs an opportunity to cater to these programs. Thus, a cycle of escalation begins: A city spending millions of dollars a year to reduce graffiti will inevitably demand stiffer penalties for transgressors and deploy more aggressive technologies to catch them in the act.

So while graffiti advocates present graffiti as a liberating force that allows individuals and communities to reclaim public space, graffiti has also given local governments a pretext to expand their coercive powers. In California, simply carrying a felt-tip marker can get you six months in jail if a prosecutor can prove you had "intent to commit vandalism or graffiti." Parents of minors who commit graffiti are liable for up to $10,000 in damages. More and more  cities  are beginning to use  graffiti tracking apps  and databases, in an effort to tie multiple instances of graffiti to taggers and thus increase their potential fines and sentences if they're caught.

But it's not just taggers and writers who bear the brunt of increasingly onerous surveillance and regulation. Ordinances that compel property owners to remove graffiti that appears on their property or face fines are now in effect in hundreds of cities throughout the U.S. If someone tags your house or business and you don't remove it in a specified amount of time after receiving a violation—sometimes as little as 48 hours—you can be fined hundreds of dollars. If you remove the graffiti and taggers hit you again, the process starts anew.

As graffiti spread from city to city in the 1980s and 1990s, so too did Graffiti Abatement Officers, Graffiti Task Forces, Graffiti Management Programs. Now, every time a tagger scribbles his name on the back of a bus seat, he may be  reclaiming a few tiny inches of worn plastic for The People, but he's also empowering the expanding apparatus of the state.

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  1. I notice this article does not address whether or not graffiti is a violation of property rights. I imagine that would strengthen Big Gov as well.

    1. Apparently in Beato’s world, only poorly executed graffiti is a bad thing.

      Reason stopped giving a shit about property rights when they conflict with leftist culture a long time ago. Look at the articles where they painted as innocents people throwing snowballs at random cars whose drivers were foolish enough to attempt to navigate the streets after a heavy snowfall and a flash mob booty call. Then a person with the temerity to exit his vehicle and give them what-for was the villain.

      1. How delightfully mendacious of you, Tulpy-Poo, to fail to mention the person exiting the vehicle and giving them “what-for” was a cop brandishing his gun.

        1. Tulpa’s a Martial Law Libertarian, Epi. He will brook no disrespect for Authoritah.

          He offers the world ORDER!

        2. The fact that he was a cop is irrelevant. Do cops not have property rights?

          The gun didn’t come out until he was personally assaulted.

        3. And I certainly don’t recall Reason mentioning that, oh yeah, that flash mob was violating property rights. Not the slightest attention was paid to it. And you remember how they got video of the incident? A person was part of the snowball throwing mob.

          1. He offered the world CANDOR!

            1. Does he bring to the world Disorder?

    2. Property rights, like any other rights, strengthen Big Government. Who else but government do we turn to when it comes to protecting these rights, and enforcing the obligations they entail?

  2. This is pretty fucking weak: it’s like blaming women who are raped for being too beautiful, or blaming weed smokers for no-knock SWAT raids against innocent people. Legitimized coercion is always and everywhere the fault of the state and the people who support a violent reaction to crime, especially of the non-violent variety. Criminals don’t dictate the nature or magnitude of the state’s reaction, nor do their actions absolve the state of wrongdoing in its response.

  3. As oppressive as a city with zero graffiti would undoubtedly be

    Are you fucking kidding me Reason? Would you lament how oppressive a city without assault and rape and burglary must be?

    1. I’m a little fuzzy on the analogy here Tulpa. Are you saying that graffiti is like raping a building?

      1. Graffiti is a rights violation, which in former times libertarians actually cared about.

        1. Well, I must be old fashioned libertarian, because, I still see it for what it is: Vandalism and Property Destruction.

      2. If the graffiti is unwelcome to the owner, yes it is. At least, it is a similar type affront. It is someone who has no right to do so imposing his will on someone else.

    2. Are you fucking kidding me Reason? Would you lament how oppressive a city without assault and rape and burglary must be?

      Probably, since the only way to actually have a city with zero violent crime is to enact a massive police state.

      1. I don’t accept that. If that questionable claim is what Beato’s pushing, he’s phrasing it in a very odd and blame-shifting way.

  4. Graffiti is property damage. As such, the govt has role in apprehending and prosecuting the perpetrators. I personally like much of the art I see around Long Beach/LA. But that doesn’t excuse the artists. Throw the book at ’em.

    1. I love how the “big govt” that Beato is concerned about is the prosecution of persons provably about to vandalize a building, the civil liability for parents who let their kids vandalize, and jurisdictions cooperating in investigating crimes.

      Oh my god, the police state is upon us! Some leftist “taggers” may not get away with their destruction of property.

  5. …”the National Park Service paid at least two people to repaint graffiti at Alcatraz Island that had originally been applied by Indian activists in 1969, when they were occupying the island in an effort to reclaim it from the federal government”…

    Mr. Pedant says:
    The activists didn’t “reclaim” anything. Amer Indians never lived on Alcatraz; no water.

    1. That’s why the Amer. Indians died of. Their inability to devise a way to transport potable water.

      1. I thought they all made Arrowheads?

      2. And the white man wouldn’t let ’em have fire-water in a bottle!

  6. In Beato’s defense, SF city government makes the owner of the building liable to fines if the graffiti isn’t removed within X days.
    And last I checked, the police aren’t real interested in arresting the miscreants. Our new, oh, so sensitive stupidvisor:
    “London Breed, …recently elected to the Board of Supervisors after working as executive director of the African American Art & Culture Complex in the Western Addition neighborhood. […]
    “We have to give them alternatives to spray painting all over our beautiful city,” she said.”

    1. BTW, the alternative I had in mind is paying for repainting the surface. The *entire* surface, including rental of scaffolding, and (since it’s SF) PAYING UNION RATES for the painters, you sleazy twits.

  7. I remember looking at graffiti in some of the oldest cathedrals in England, particularly the cathedral at Durham. Scratched into the stone and wood were the exact same shit you see being done today from the 1100’s up to today. ‘X loves Y’, ‘ fuck so and so’ , dirty limericks, etc. . Oddly I dont remember seeing anything overtly political. You would probably be hunted down and beheaded for that until recently.

    1. There is graffiti on the walls in Pompeii. It is literally the exact same shit as you would find today in, say, a bathroom (just in Latin). “Romeo loves Juliet”, “Portia is a whore”, “Fuck the mayor”, etc.

      1. Bet nobody graffito’d “Caesar sucks big ones!”

        1. His soldiers insinuated as much during one of his triumphs. It was Roman tradition that, during a triumph, soldiers denigrated their commander.

      2. “hey baby let me show you my vesuvius”

  8. I never even thought about it liek that before.

    1. Yes you have. Ad kick the other spam bots out. They lack your je ne sais quoi.

  9. Cosmos-fucking-tarianism! These leftists put their cultural viewpoints above property rights, specifically my right not to have vandals fucking create “art” on my property. A city without grafiti would be fucking great, it would be libertarianism in action! But this isn’t a libertarian magazine, it’s a cosmotarian magazine, or maybe just a liberal magazine.

    1. What if I paid those kids to graffiti my building? Would you have a problem then?

      Cause cities still would.

      1. Oh look, its the same train of thought that Cosmo Reason used against Right to Work. Using examples that rarely happen does not constitute an argument.

  10. Josiah. true that Martha`s blurb is cool… last friday I got a top of the range Honda when I got my cheque for $7766 this past month and just over $10,000 last munth. this is certainly my favourite work Ive ever had. I started this 6 months ago and almost straight away startad making at least $82.. per-hour. I use this web-site,……..

  11. The blood of graffiti artists sprayed all over the sides of buildings, bridges, rail-cars, etc, would make some awesome new graffiti.

  12. Snappers fairy ( I can’t be bothered to spell his name) is a boot licker. Or has he apologizd for that shit poster and endosrsement of a mass murderer. Also Turk 182.

  13. No, fuck you cosmotarian Reason. People who “paint” graffiti are property vandals and are thugs. I’m tired of seeing business owners and rail companies have to shell out cash in order to paint over the leftist trash that cosmo reason always seems to sympathize with.

    1. Yes. I work on the railroad, and I am sick of looking at the mindless nihilism enshrined by these so-called “artists”. They are the human version of the jungle that creeps along the edges of civilization, forever looking for a foothold against its destruction. And they found it with the cosmotarians at Treason magazine.

      The lefty losers who defile the property of others are unfit to exist in an industrial civilization, and their shabby “art” is nothing but a full announcement of that fact.

      1. Yeah, but what if the artist was a taxpayer and he painted on public property? Shouldn’t he have some kind of feeling of ownership? Everybody who pays for the white house and police stations should get to have their say about how fucked up they are with a can of spray paint.

        1. Thank you! This article completely ignores graff on so-called “public” (State!) property.

          If it’s really property that we all share in common, then the entire thing is just a big free speech wall. My taxpayer money was taken from me by force, and I’m not allowed to bomb an overpass because it might offend someone? Fuck that.

          Some of the cranky old conservative libertarians that have commented before me should take a can of molotow out at 3AM one night and write what they think of Obama on something that was paid for with their stolen money. Of all people that should be for bombing the agora, you’d think some of these tea-party types would be the first ones lining up to defend the act.

          I totally understand the negative view of (most) private property illegal graff. Although subsidized companies could probably use some too. Sometimes. Maybe.

  14. Have you guys been through east St. Louis lately? Everything is covered in graffiti, it looks like hell on earth. Just don’t get off the I-70 or get out of your car and you should be alright.

  15. I like hip-hop and graffiti art but violating private property isn’t cool and it does empower government.

  16. NFL,NBA,2013 Fashion kickoff for u

  17. if u only had a brain you would come up with some real solutions!! obviously taggers are going to tag so duh make seversal places round town where the taggs are legal and put there for fun have competitions encourage art dont look down on this expession of people you are really narrow mindeed if you do!! sure some will still be mindless punks who would think that to be idiotic and not for thier rebelion cause but it woulds stop some of the tagging and be a positive thing in the community!! stupid stupid stupid!! tagging is definatly very cool!! and chic to boot so there dinga ling up tight ass puckerers!!

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