Once upon a time at this magazine, we had an intern who badly wanted to write about cities and graffiti. We talked for a while and it seemed like a good idea, so I asked him to do some initial reporting. But when he came back, it was clear that he and I had dramatically different ideas of what the story should say. I felt that cities were finally learning how to get rid of a criminal eyesore that was stifling their efforts at revitalization. He felt that the same cities were cruelly snuffing out the legitimate desires of an entire youthful generation to express itself.
As you might guess, I didn’t let him do the story. If the same issue came up now, I probably still wouldn’t. But over the years, I’ve come to realize that this is a subject with many gray areas. And cities are beginning to look at it the same way. They are trying to accommodate what they used to denounce as an urban scourge, and are looking for means to tempt graffiti writers away from vandalism and toward art.
This is happening as graffiti is on the verge of obtaining legal protection, something that it has never possessed. In April, a federal judge in New York City awarded $6.75 million to 21 graffiti artists in Queens whose works had been painted over without warning on a cluster of buildings being prepared for development. The works were part of a site called 5Pointz that had evolved over the years into an open-air graffiti museum. By 2014, the paintings had become something of a tourist attraction. The property owner had never hidden his desire to develop the site, but a jury and later a judge found that the unannounced removal of the work violated a 1990 federal law known as VARA, the Visual Artists Rights Act.
VARA imposes penalties to property owners who destroy or obliterate works of “recognized stature by art experts, the art community or society in general,” although it does not make clear what “recognized stature” is. It requires that artists be given 90 days’ notice so they can relocate the works themselves. Over its 28-year history, VARA had never been used to protect graffiti -- until now. The decision is on appeal, but whatever the final result, it’s part of a new era in the complicated relationships among artists, vandals, property owners and city governments.
The legal intricacies may be less important than the changing attitudes toward aspiring street artists that have taken hold in big cities throughout the world. Bogota and Lisbon are promoting street painting. Montreal and Brussels sponsor graffiti walking tours for visitors. Tel Aviv does this as well; it may be the world capital of modern graffiti. In some parts of the central city, seemingly every available wall space is covered with an artistic production meant to impart a lesson, goal or attitude of some sort: peace on the West Bank; kindness to animals; ridicule of tourists; criticism of the current Israeli prime minister.
Graffiti is no longer about delinquents marking their territory, says Niro Taub, a well-known graffiti proselytizer and tour guide in Tel Aviv. “We look on graffiti not as ‘so ’80s,’ but as street art.” Much of it is reminiscent of the political posters that appeared on the walls of 19th-century Paris. Taub simply says it is “second-generation graffiti.”
American cities are moving more deliberately in the same direction. The District of Columbia has more murals on its city walls than ever before. It pairs aerosol artists with neighborhoods and property owners to create 10 officially sanctioned wall projects a year. In St. Louis, an annual festival called Paint Louis covers two miles of floodwall with spray painted productions; the volume of political art there seems to have expanded dramatically as part of the unrest that followed the shooting of a black teenager by police in the suburb of Ferguson in 2014. Smaller cities are starting to do similar things: Billings, Mont., and Rapid City, S.D., both have “art alleys” where the painting is protected and tourists are encouraged to drop by for a look. The one in Billings is a joint project of the downtown business association, the Sherwin-Williams paint company and a group of graffiti activists called Underground Culture Krew.
Some of these projects may exist for aesthetic reasons, but those are not the only reasons. They are being sanctioned in the hope that managed graffiti in specially designated places is a way to cut down on the indiscriminate tagging of private and public property that marks gang territory and amounts to nothing more than vandalism.
How well this strategy will work is very much open to question. One business leader in Billings has expressed the belief that its art alley gives graffiti painters a chance to “come in and burn off this energy.” But after several years in operation, the alley program has not led to a significant decrease in the tagging vandalism that the city is trying to eliminate.
Some of the cities that are promoting managed graffiti remain highly ambivalent about the whole idea. Chicago seems to be tolerating graffiti and fighting it at the same time. “The city is tattooed with art on its streets,” a local writer reported a couple of years ago. “Graffiti and street art are mushrooming beyond the days of artists throwing up their work at night on rooftops” to catch the eye of commuters on elevated trains. Still, the city has made the tools hard to get. It restricted the sale of spray paint in the 1990s, and that restriction remains in effect. The city is also relentless about removing graffiti produced outside officially designated areas -- it is removed within 72 hours 90 percent of the time.
Timothy Kephart, a longtime expert on graffiti who consults with cities about how to deal with it, feels that art alleys and similar efforts won’t accomplish much. “The graffiti that cities are spending millions to erase isn’t going down,” he told me recently. “Most of the kids doing graffiti are not into artistic murals. The tagging motivation is to seek notoriety. The gang motivation is to instill fear.” Kephart believes in covering up graffiti quickly, but not until it has been monitored by police for clues to gang activity and the identity of vandals.
There continues to be a strong segment of public opinion holding to the idea that cities are simply caving in to gang members and vandals. “There is nothing progressive about allowing public amenities to be defaced by graffiti,” the cultural critic Heather Mac Donald wrote several years ago. “Anyone who can avoid a graffiti-bombed park or commercial thoroughfare will do so.” She sees hypocrisy in the willingness of art museums to celebrate graffiti on public property that they would never allow on their own building walls.
The battle over graffiti has been through several distinct phases in the four decades since cities began to recognize it as a serious problem. At first, in the 1970s, it was seen as a New York problem, and one concentrated in the city’s subway system. Vandals were breaking into subway yards to tag rail cars, spray-painting names and gang signs that few people would have considered art. There was a feeling in the early years that not much could be done about it, but New York proved that pessimism to be wrong. It began buying stainless steel subway cars, which are difficult to vandalize, and launched the Clean Train Movement in the 1980s, which vowed to get all graffiti-painted cars out of the system entirely. They came close to doing it. That drove graffiti painters into the streets, and especially onto rooftops. But it also demonstrated that with enough determination, the amount of graffiti plaguing public and private property could be brought under control. Over the past couple of decades, cities around the country have curbed it by using techniques similar to those that had worked in New York.
But graffiti has not come close to disappearing from urban streets. In one recent year, New York was still spending $7 million on graffiti eradication; Chicago, $6 million; and Las Vegas, $3 million.
Thus was born the relatively new idea that the way to deal with the spray painters was to combine rapid elimination of illegal tagging with programs to co-opt the more ambitious perpetrators by treating them as artists and giving them walls to work on legally. But this isn’t foolproof. The sites declared legal are often the walls of buildings that have been abandoned or are awaiting redevelopment. These can provide legal graffiti space for years, but in most cases a developer eventually comes in, wants to start building and begins by taking down the walls, painted or not. This is now one of the leading sources of conflict; it was the cause of the litigation in the 5Pointz case in Queens.
All these cases complicate what seems at first to be the fundamental principle of graffiti management: If the artist gets permission from the property owner or the city, the painting is legal. If not, it is vandalism and deserves to be painted over, promptly and with no exceptions. That’s a simple rule, and I think a reasonable one. But as many cities are discovering, it may be a bit too simple for the urban reality that currently exists.