Civil Liberties

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.