Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Pushing Back Against Graffiti

I get so sick of seeing all the graffiti that has been spreading like a disease around this city. It seems to be on every wall, every light box, traffic signal box and door. When gangs - or gang wannabes - put graffiti somewhere, it's called a "tag" and is supposed to symbolize that the neighborhood where the tag is located belongs to a gang. So, it's supposed to mark turf. Sometimes a tag is used simply to indicate that some one had been there, like the old "Kilroy was here" drawings that used to be everywhere back in the 1940s and 50s.

Some people refer to graffiti as an form of art and think that it is a way for youth and other disaffected people to voice their displeasure with Society or "The Man". Honestly, "art" and graffiti are two separate things. Art is something that people want to pay for and want to have around. They want and encourage it and don't mind having it in their home and artists will even have it in their own homes, either their own work or others'. Graffiti must be forced upon people. No one wants it around, not even people who inflict graffiti on other peoples' property. You won't see taggers tagging their own property under any circumstances and would immediately get angry if a tagger tagged their home or something they cared about.

Personally, I don't see it that way. I see it as an attack, people who damage other peoples' property simply because they can and want to. The taggers would never tag their own homes or possessions, but would do it to other people and make other people bear the costs of cleaning it up, as in the case of these two instances:

The one on the left (at the intersection of Keeaumoku and Kapiolani) is on City property, which must be cleaned-off at taxpayer expense. The one on the right (on Halekauwila, next to the First Circuit Courthouse) is on a privately-owned building, where the property owner has to pay some one to paint it over.

Shortly after news reports came out that people convicted of graffiti vandalism would have to participate in graffiti clean-up, there seemed to be an explosion of graffiti everywhere in the City, as if the taggers were daring HPD to catch them and make them clean it up.

I remember that once, on my way to work, I met a man who rode his bike around the Ala Moana area. In the basket on his bike, he had some paint and painting supplies. he wasn't a tagger, but a concerned indiviual who took matters into his own hands to paint-over graffiti where ever he found it. I haven't seen him around in a long time. I'd guess that he either stopped on his own or some gang members warned him to stop or else. Either way, the result is the same: graffiti is widespread in the area he used to patrol. People in Waikele have organized and anti-graffiti patrol of their own and they seem to have it under control in the neighborhood. I believe other neighborhoods have done the same thing, either with regular cleanings or special events every few months.

I think the City could make a better impact on graffiti if they put the word out about how people can report vandalism. There are phone numbers you can call to report it happening:

  • graffiti on City property: (808) 527-5180
  • graffiti on property belonging to Hawaiian Electric: (808) 543-7370
  • Honolulu Police Department graffiti report hotline: (808) 529-3222
  • graffiti on State roads: (808) 831-6714
  • The Bus graffiti report hotline: (808) 848-4500
So, there's no lack of agencies to report graffiti. The problem is that there is no one phone number to call and it's very difficult to remember so many different phone numbers and few people will save all the numbers on their cellphones the way I do. It would be simpler if there was a single number to call and then, once the property owner was determined, the information could be routed and the problem dealt with.

Having taggers clean graffiti up sounds like a great idea. The problem is that few taggers get caught. I doubt if there are many taggers out there, but even a small group can do a lot of damage in an evening.

What could be done is to organize regular graffiti cleanups in neighborhoods affected by it. Private businesses could be asked to donate the needed supplies and I don't think volunteers would be hard to come-by. You could even take some of the minor offenders from the jails and put them to work. Why not have people convicted of drunken driving, prostitution, vandalism, etc be put to work on wekends cleaning-up the city they  have negatively affected?

The biggest impact could be made with the help of a camera or two. Taggers' chief reward is seeing their tags up for days, weeks, even months after they put them up and a lot of taggers know each others' tags. If you publish the Before and After pictures of the clean-ups, it would both anger and embarrass the taggers in seeing that their precious tags have been removed. Even if they get put up again, they'll know that the tags will be removed shortly. So, they'll take the risk - however slight - of getting caught and it will be for the sake of having their tags up for only a few days.

Courts need to stop going easy on convicted taggers and should not shrink from making an example of them. Making them pay for the damage they've done and/or clean-up graffiti around the city. Post their picture in newspapers, along with their names and the streets they live on, along with the estimated financial costs of the damage they've done to others. Leave them and/or their parents open to civil litigation.

Most taggers assume, quite rightly, that it is unlikely that they will ever be caught. If you make an example of the few you do catch and remove graffiti quickly after it has been put up, the allure of living on the edge as a tagger will not be so appealing.

Duane Browning

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