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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
13 March 2000

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 1, No. 9

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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Addressing the Graffiti Explosion Before It's Too Late

by Jerome F. Winzig

A vandal, says Webster's dictionary, is "one who willfully or ignorantly destroys, damages, or defaces property belonging to another or to the public." The word derives from the Vandals of the fourth and fifth centuries. Considered barbarians, they swept out of what is now eastern Germany to overrun Gaul, Spain, Rome, and north Africa. Today, in a new wave of barbarism, a few people are intentionally trashing and disfiguring other people's property with paint and markers all over the Minneapolis area, but they are often not called "vandals."

Instead, graffiti vandals are sometimes glamorized or excused. Some call them "taggers." Supposedly, taggers paint symbols or abbreviations in prominent places to get recognition from their peers. It is asserted that such tags are different in kind from gang graffiti used to mark territory and promote a gang and its criminal activities. Other graffiti vandals are called "graffiti artists" who, it is claimed, paint images and pictures on other people's property because they are frustrated artists.

However, a good look around residential and commercial neighborhoods in Minneapolis indicates the truth is more dismal. With increasing frequency, illegible characters and designs are scrawled on garbage dumpsters, small businesses, community buildings, phone company boxes, construction dumpsters, street signs, postal delivery mailboxes, fire hydrants, sidewalks, electric utility boxes, private garages, bus stops, bridges, newspaper dispensers, bus stop benches, retaining walls, and even covers on telephone pole guy wires. Some objects are overlaid with layers of ugly scribbling.

It is depressing and meaningless. To most people, the writing is unreadable. Sometimes individual characters are recognizable, but the acronyms spell nothing familiar. Some patterns and signs are repeated, but they symbolize no individual or organization known to the neighborhood. At best, graffiti represents chaotic, selfish, wanton, purposeless destructiveness. At worst, it represents a first level of angry terrorism that foretells greater harm to the community.

Who does this to our neighborhoods and commercial areas, and why? Generally, graffiti seems to be a juvenile activity. Forty-year-olds don't seem to be arrested for painting graffiti on stop signs, phone company boxes, and bus stop benches. How would they have the time to roam around at night spray-painting things? More importantly, why would they do it? But the same question can and ought to be asked about why young people vandalize property with graffiti.

Some would argue that graffiti is the result of poverty and neglect. The first explanation -- poverty -- does not hold up under scrutiny. To paint graffiti requires time, money, and mobility. But those who are poor do not have a lot of idle time; they're too busy working long hours or split shifts. Nor can they afford to waste money buying cans of paint or oversize markers. Those who are truly poor may not own a car, and if they do, are not likely to waste precious gas money driving around the city with paint can in hand.

The second explanation -- neglect -- is more plausible. Many young people today at all economic levels are neglected by their parents. One or both parents may be absent or preoccupied with themselves or their careers, hobbies, crimes, and addictions. Some parents would rather watch television than spend time with their children. Other parents give their children money and material goods instead of love and attention.

This is really a kind of spiritual poverty that results in a pervasive decadence that creates angry young people without purpose or direction. Painting graffiti on someone else's property then becomes an angry out let or another "fun" thing to do.

We tolerate and allow graffiti. Some parents of graffiti vandals know what their children are doing. Others are intentionally inattentive. Paint cans, markers, and late-night comings and goings ought to be noticed at home. So should the other behaviors that probably accompany graffiti vandalism.

It is not just parents who allow graffiti. Somewhere there are hardware stores selling cans of spray paint to the same young people over and over again. Elsewhere there are art supply stores selling oversize markers in the same way. The merchants and sales clerks there should notice. They ought to ask their young customers what they are doing with these materials. But instead of behaving like responsible community members, some merchants apparently take an amoral stance that says, "If they don't get it here, they'll just get it somewhere else."

We need to stop accepting the dreary reality of graffiti. What if we punished graffiti vandals by ordering a police officer to spray paint something -- anything -- on the vandals' clothing, house, garage, wall, or car? What if we allowed the police officer to choose the target, the time, and the scribbling? What if we also required the vandals to remove the court-ordered graffiti at their own expense within 48 hours?

Many people would be shocked at such punishment and would consider it intrusive and demeaning. Others would sue in court to halt the practice.

But if spray-painting a criminal's property and then requiring the criminal to remove it is outrageous, then why isn't it outrageous when graffiti vandals damage an innocent citizen's property at random, while the property owner is required by law to remove the graffiti? Who pays the expenses for the phone company, the Postal Service, or the newspaper to remove graffiti? Who reimburses the property owner who has to pay $1,000 to have graffiti removed? Who pays for having a garage re-stuccoed or re-sided? Who compensates the building owner whose brick facade is permanently ruined? How do store owners cope when their walls are defaced several times a week?

Now, spray painting the property of graffiti vandals is not really the way to stop graffiti vandalism. However, we could sentence graffiti vandals to 100 hours of supervised hard work for each vandalism offense. This could include removing graffiti in and near their own neighborhoods for two months while providing their own materials for the clean-up. In the case of juvenile offenders, this could include requiring parents or guardians to join their children for half of those hours.

Such a sentence would be considered severe by some. But it would not be arbitrary or outrageous. It would help undo the damage done by the vandals and would let them experience how hard it is to undo the damage they have done.

But such a sentence is only half the solution. The rest of the solution is to insist that parents start parenting again. Graffiti is just one sign of parental neglect. When such neglect is left unchecked, there are serious consequences for our neighborhoods and our communities.

Several suburban Minneapolis schools have been hit by massive vandalism attacks in the last several years, with damages in the millions of dollars. Last year, a group of graffiti vandals shot at a Minneapolis couple who dared to shout at them to stop painting graffiti. Earlier this year, shots were fired into a Minneapolis cafe by graffiti vandals who were shooting at each other.

Just this month, two men in their early twenties were arrested for a series of suburban ransack burglaries that portend where unchecked vandalism leads. These burglars broke appliances, smashed antiques and china, spilled food, punched holes in walls, sprayed belongings with fire extinguishers, and cut up autographed photos.

In another recent incident, four gang members repeatedly raped a 15-year-old girl in a suburban motel room in the presence of a dozen other gang members and friends. Before they left, they scrawled graffiti on the walls and ceiling of the motel room.

We need to ask what's going on in the lives of these young people. Tolerating wanton destructiveness on our streets and in our neighborhoods leads to more of the same. Tolerating parents who refuse to parent leads to more anger and resentment. It is time to insist that parents act like parents and that young people respect the property of others. When they do not, communities ought to impose appropriate consequences.

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