Tagging Graffiti

At 7:00 a.m., you roll into the parking lot ready to get your day started only to find the building covered in spray-painted graffiti. It happens everywhere--from small-town parks in cities like Delhi, Ohio, to large metropolitan areas like Philadelphia. Mix together young people with idle time, toss in a dash of absent supervision, add a pinch of peer-pressure, access to spray paint and a blank wall, and you have all the ingredients for a graffiti problem.

To solve this, chip away at the root cause by eliminating the bragging rights. In the early 1990s, Philadelphia was plagued with graffiti, or tagging. Painting over the constant assault of spray paint proved futile for some business owners because the freshly painted wall simply provided a crisp canvas rather than a deterrent to vandalism.

Graffiti On, Graffiti Off

Early one morning, Sandy Monahan, director of the Delhi Parks and Recreation Department, discovered that the newly developed skatepark had been tagged, so she began to follow the strict policy of graffiti-on, graffiti-off cleanup when she was stopped by several youth. “The skatepark kids approached me, and were upset about the graffiti,” says Monahan. “They didn’t want it on their plaza, and about a dozen kids volunteered and scrubbed off the paint that same day.”

“When you take it down immediately--very early in the morning--vandals are discouraged,” says Deborah Lamm Weisel, research assistant professor with North Carolina State University, who specializes in crime and policing with an emphasis on street crime. “Their motivation is to put it up and for people to see it, but if it is taken down before anyone has a chance to see it, that thwarts their desire to redo it.”

The Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN), a nonprofit organization, was formed in 1984 to combat graffiti vandalism. The city also operates a graffiti-abatement team that removes graffiti from government buildings and privately owned structures within 48 hours.

“It’s the broken-windows theory,” says Thomas Conway, deputy managing director of PAGN. “When you allow graffiti to build up, it creates a sense of hopelessness and despair in the neighborhood. Then the criminal element feels that it can move in, and law-abiding citizens feel they are not being taken care of and begin to not believe in the system.”

“In 1996, we cleaned roughly 3,000 properties,” says Conway. “In fiscal year 2008, we cleaned over 112,000 properties.” These include private and government property as well as street signs. The Graffiti Abatement Team has even removed graffiti from road signage over busy Interstate 95. The program also provides paint and painting supplies free of charge to citizens to paint over graffiti.

“If you do nothing about the graffiti, it creates a domino effect,” says Lamm Weisel. “Because one piece of graffiti attracts more graffiti, and when law-abiding citizens see graffiti, they think gangs. So then you lose your law-abiding citizens as patrons, and attract people who don’t follow the rules.”

Think Like A Vandal

Having park officers or local law-enforcement tour parks may help decrease the amount of graffiti vandalism, but it consumes manpower and resources. Instead, consider creative alternatives. Stopping vandalism requires an understanding of what type of vandalism is affecting a facility. Determine if it is a one-time, random act, a habitual tagging, or an act that is gang-related as well. Lamm Weisel says, “By determining the frequency and type of vandalism, you can then begin to interrupt those patterns.”

Experts suggest thinking like a graffiti vandal to make tagging more difficult. Obvious solutions include motion-sensitive lighting, but experts encourage creative uses of sprinkler systems, riprap, or thorny plants to block access. “Think in more-permanent and less-expensive solutions,” says Lamm Weisel. “Permanent measures have long-term impact, and something as simple as a gate, to prevent after-hours access, can go a long way to abating graffiti vandalism.”

Dark And Craggy Is Good

Problematic areas for parks include porous concrete surfaces that are difficult to clean when defaced. However, painting the concrete with dark or multi-colored paint helps deter taggers because the graffiti doesn’t show up as well. Multi-colored tiles, brick and rough-surface concrete also will discourage taggers. “Something that is a textured, uneven surface or a multi-colored surfaced is less attractive,” says Lamm Weisel. “Light-colored, plain concrete walls are preferred by graffiti vandals because they want people to see their tag.”

Getting Everyone On The Same Page

“We are never going to arrest or legislate our way out of the problem,” says Conway. “The best way is the quick removal and response by police to make an example out of repeat offenders.” For instance, Philadelphia authorities were able to arrest repeat vandals after taking photographs to document the graffiti before it was removed and sharing the information with law enforcement. The vandals were each sentenced to 12 days in jail and $5,000 restitution.

The key to obtaining this result is to work closely with law enforcement and explain to judges why graffiti vandalism deserves more than just a slap on the wrist. Conway says, “To help judges understand the impact graffiti has, we have the people who have been victimized by the graffiti talk about how they felt about being a victim of a crime and how much it impacted them.”

Ownership Alleviates Graffiti Problems

PAGN also provides taggers who display talent an opportunity to study art with a mentor. “Once we find that there are some kids who have some artistic talents, we try to redirect their energies into a real arts program,” says Conway. Rather than leaving a fresh, clean wall prey to taggers, the PAGN program has artists in the community create a mural.

A mural serves a variety of purposes--taggers are reluctant to tag it, the area is beautified, and residents are more likely to report graffiti, putting a damper on its happening. Even though the reasons why taggers won’t vandalize a mural range from appreciation of another’s art to their graffiti being hidden, the results are the same:a mural is effective at deterring graffiti.

“If you have an aspect of unsupervised youth, they need an outlet, and creating a mural is a good venue to keep them busy,” says Lamm Weisel. “Busy youth stay out of trouble.” In Philadelphia, over 2,800 murals have been created by kids being mentored or in after-school programs, where they work on murals for recreational centers and other public facilities.

Ownership of a park means involving youth in taking care of it, as Delhi officials did during the creation of the skatepark. By creating a sense of ownership, you may be fortunate to be greeted by a group of kids who are angry that someone has defaced their park and are ready to clean up the damage. Then you will really have a jump-start on your day.

Tammy York is the owner of LandShark Communications LLC, which specializes in media and public relations for recreation businesses. Her upcoming book, 60 Hikes within 60 Miles of Cincinnati, is due out March 2009, and can be pre-ordered through Amazon.com. You can reach her at landsharkpr@yahoo.com.