Vandalism posing as art?

Graffitist in Noumea



The Wordpower Dictionary says graffiti is “unauthorized writing or drawing on a surface in a public place.” It includes the horrible scribble you see painted or scrawled on fences, bridges, in subways, on the sides of buildings, houses, and elsewhere (also called tagging). Most of it is childish scribble that looks like 5-year-olds have done it. But some of it is colorful and might look artistic if it hadn't destroyed someone's property.

And that is the problem with graffiti — it is “unauthorized”, as the dictionary says, and it destroys someone's property. It is a crime, like stealing, because it steals the property owner's right to have their own property look clean and nice. And it makes repairs costly for the property owner; graffiti scribblers never offer to pay the cost of repairing their destruction, which may cost the property owners thousands of dollars to repair or replace.

“I will never do it again”

Some authorities are cracking down hard on graffiti vandals. A teenage girl with no criminal history was sentenced to 3 months jail for writing her nickname on the wall of a cafe in Sydney, Australia.

Cheyane Back wept as she was sentenced to 3 months fulltime custody for scrawling on the public wall at Sydney's Hyde Park Cafe. Shaken by the threat of being behind bars, she vowed never to paint her graffiti signature or anything else on public property again.

“I'll never do anything like it again,” she told the media. “I would clean it off, I'll apologise, I'll do anything. I was shocked and scared.

“Jail is a big step. I've been sitting in that place (the cells) too long and it's absolutely horrible, it's disgusting. It definitely taught me a lesson.”

Graffiti will always have a bad name

A few property owners pay to have colorful murals and other large-scale paintings on their walls and fences. Although some people try to say this is graffiti while the unauthorized scribble is “tagging”, the dictionary does not make a distinction. That's because graffiti already has a bad meaning in people's minds, so people who think they are “good” graffitists will need to find another word if they hope to make a positive impression.

This article is not criticizing authorized art — which we love, by the way. It is about graffiti vandalism.

Graffiti showing some talent and some destruction

Graffiti as art?

Some graffiti vandals say they are improving the look of fences or walls by doing colorful paintings on them. This is disputable, because they don't ask the property owner whether they agree with this view, or whether it is OK with the property owner to have the property “improved”. It is not up to you or me to change or destroy someone else's property without their permission.

Would a graffiti vandal want you coming into his or her house or apartment and smash down the front door because you thought the place would look better without a door? Of course not. Yet a graffiti vandal can cost a property owner much more than the cost of a door. It can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars in repair bills, or lower the property's value by thousands of dollars — just with one mindless scribble across a fence or wall.

Old problemPyramid graffito

Some graffiti vandals think they are doing something new. But graffiti vandalism dates back a long way. Archaeologists have found ancient graffiti on the great pyramid at Giza in Egypt, on an Egyptian sphinx, and on walls in Pompeii (the Italian town buried by the Mount Vesuvius volcanic eruption in AD 79).

second_century_graffitoPrivate property owners in ancient Rome obviously felt graffiti vandals were pests as much as today's property owners do. A carved sign found in ancient Rome begged people not to scribble on the walls.

By the way, many people do not know that graffiti means more than one scribble. The word for a single scribble is graffito.

Graffiti vandals often show how stupid they are by risking falling from bridges or trains while graffitiing. Some die; others suffer horrific injuries. In some neighborhoods, residents get so fed up with graffiti vandals that they secretly watch for them, follow them home, and later come back and damage the graffitists' homes.

How New York City cleaned up graffiti on the subway

New York City used to have a terrible problem with graffiti in its subways. Then in the mid-1980s a new subway director named David Gunn decided he was going to stop graffiti on trains.

He started with the number 7 train connecting Queens to midtown Manhattan. On stainless steel cars his team cleaned off the graffiti with solvents. On painted cars, the team painted over the graffiti as soon as they appeared. At the train yard on 135th Street in Harlem, an anti-graffiti team waited for the graffiti vandals to finish their destruction each night.

Mr Gunn said: “Then we'd walk over with rollers and paint it over. The kids would be in tears, but we'd just be going up and down, up and down. It was a message to them. If you want to spend three nights of your time vandalizing a train, fine. But it's never going to see the light of day.”

How to clean up your area

graffitist_greenwallSome church youth groups have had great success ridding their area of graffiti. Surveys have found that teens who go to church get into less trouble and have higher values than other teens, so it's not surprising that church youth groups are against graffiti destruction.

Some city authorities now supply anti-graffiti kits to anyone who wants to clean up graffiti. If youth groups decide to clean off or paint over graffiti as soon as it appears, graffiti vandals stop in that area. The graffitists want people to see their work. If someone gets rid of it before anyone else sees it, the graffitists have no incentive to target that area.

If you would like to get your youth group or club to try it, find out from your local authorities what they will let you do to clean off the graffiti. Organize everyone in your group to be “spotters” in the neighborhood and get rid of graffiti in one street at a time or as soon as it appears. Sometimes it may reappear as soon as you clean it off, but eventually you will win.

What does the Bible say?

God told the Israelites: “You shall not follow a multitude in doing evil …” (Exodus 23:2). Breaking the law is doing evil. Just because there are many graffiti vandals does not make it right.

God also gave an order in His Ten Commandments that people must not steal. Stealing means taking something dishonestly, which is what graffiti vandals do when they damage property. A property owner may pay $5000 to have a fence painted. Then someone scrawls graffiti over it, costing the owner another $5000 to have it painted again. There is little difference in stealing $5000 cash from the owner or making him pay $5000 for the new paint job. Either way the graffitist has dishonestly taken $5000 from the owner.

God also gave property laws to His people. For some acts of stealing, the guilty person had to repay five times as much as he or she stole (Exodus 22:1). For other acts that went before a judge, the guilty person had to pay double the value of what he or she stole or damaged (Exodus 22:9). Many victims of graffiti attacks would like to see the biblical punishment applied today.

And it may happen if the graffiti problem does not improve.

PS We often get emails from graffiti vandals who say there wouldn't be a problem if the community provided a place for the vandals to do their scribble. We always reply that it is not up to the community to provide victims for graffiti vandals — just as it is not up to the community to provide victims for rapists, thieves or Nigerian email scammers.

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