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Blame Phone Apps for Graffiti’s Reemergence

Technology has spurred a renewed interest in street art. Cash-strapped cities are combating the costly problem with smartphones.

Graffiti is back. Well, it never really went away, but it has been kept in check since the bad old days of the 1970s and ’80s when tags and so-called street art defaced properties from Los Angeles to New York. But this year, a growing number of cities are reporting an upswing in graffitied buildings, street signs, guardrails and public transit. Last July, Los Angeles removed 35.4 million square feet of graffiti, an 8.2 percent jump over 2010.

Beyond the increase in incidents, it’s less clear who is doing it and why. Gangs were once the traditional source of most graffiti tagging, but public officials say it’s now teenagers and young adults. As for why they are doing it, explanations range from the predictable to the bizarre. Some blame the tough economy; others point to the fact that many, especially young people, view graffiti as an art form; and still others believe graffiti tagging has become a form of addiction, giving the tagger a “high” that can be hard to control.

One thing is clear: Graffiti is costly. The U.S. spends approximately $12 billion annually to remove it, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). Los Angeles spends more than $7 million to remove tags; Chicago has budgeted $5.5 million this fiscal year; and Fullerton, Calif., which has a population just over 135,000, spends $250,000 annually to clean it up. To make things worse, just as graffiti incidents are on the rise, cities everywhere are spending less on prevention and removal.

The best explanation for its re-emergence though, is technology -- which is both the culprit and the solution. When tags disappear as fast as they appear, according to the DOJ report, the motivation to do it dissipates. But now, graffiti can live forever. Those that consider it a form of artistic expression can download an app, such as All City Art, that helps fans follow renowned street artists by locating their newest tag.

At the same time, several cities, like Boston and New York, have apps that allow citizens to report graffiti to officials. Police departments also have apps that help them identify and monitor graffiti hot spots. Using smartphones equipped with cameras and GPS, police can track a specific tagger with the goal of eventually nabbing him or her. In Los Angeles, the police department launched a program last spring that allows graffiti-cleaning crew members to use their smartphones to take photos of any vandalism, and upload the images to an LAPD database. The photos are then analyzed, used to collect evidence for prosecution and, as soon as suspects are identified, added to the database so police can link related incidents.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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