Punish vandals, not graffiti artists

Good news for those who want Minneapolis’ buildings, trains and bridge overpasses to be plain and faceless: Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton is on your side. She recently announced a number of new anti-graffiti initiatives.
With support from frustrated businesses and neighborhood groups, Minneapolis detectives are gathering more data on graffiti vandals, also known as “taggers.” An investigator in each precinct regularly reports to anti-graffiti coordinator Sgt. Tom Stocke, who taggers call Sgt. Stalker because of his intense nature.
The city’s new plan will build cases against the vandals instead of prosecuting for single incidents. With proof of damages exceeding $500, prosecutors will charge taggers with a felony.
I have no problem with the crackdown as it pertains to the meaningless signature scrawls found on telephones, bus stops and buildings. These childish scribbles, driven by a sadly underdeveloped ego, do a disservice to more thoughtful street artists.
Most likely, these simple “tags,” not the more time-consuming pieces that are usually carefully planned and filled with color, are responsible for anti-graffiti sentiments. Examples of more complicated works can be seen at the corner of First and Washington avenues downtown or at the Intermedia Arts building on Lyndale Avenue in Uptown.
Several graffiti artists said their primary goal is to display their art skills for their friends and peers in the graffiti scene, not to the general public.
Toward that end, these people paint in out-of-the-way locations, like train yards and other industrial areas. Because their work takes more time to create, the artists must find more remote locations, where their works are not visible to many people.
A question. If it’s true, as a Canadian Pacific Railroad investigator told the Star Tribune, that one side of a train car costs more than $5,000 to repaint, why do they bother?
Maybe their customers dislike colored trains bringing shipments, or the railroad management thinks it looks sloppy. Perhaps, as Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said, some people are frightened by graffiti.
“They see (graffiti) as evidence of chaos and lack of control,” he said. “That’s a message we can’t allow to keep having sent out.”
The names scrawled all over the city cause some to fear gang activity, as similar symbols are used to mark territory in heavy gang areas. But let’s not lump those scribbles in with thoughtful, time-consuming paintings that are obviously not threatening.
The former are seen as signs of urban decay. But why would a colorful mural lead to negative feelings or fear?
It is a shame that people refer to it all as “graffiti,” when the sloppy, ego-boosting scribbles have little in common with the larger works of art.
I empathize with the business and property owners whose windows are vandalized and walls covered with the selfish marks of those desperate for an identity. And although one artist said most who do the larger works also do the simple tags, we can at least focus our efforts on the garbage, while giving more thoughtful people an outlet.
Perhaps the authorities can stop graffiti, much as they have stopped the smoking of marijuana.
We should apply a more selective law enforcement paradigm, cracking down on individuals who deface public areas and private property, but encouraging, rather than discouraging, industries and railroads to allow artists to paint bare, boring surfaces.
For example, in south Minneapolis there is an area known to taggers as the “bomb shelter,” where artists have painted legally for 10 years. The owners allowed painting on the back of the building, as long as the artists stayed away from the side visible to the public.
Recently, a graffiti artist known as “Wire” painted there for more than three hours, creating a large rendition of his artist name. These works are more colorful and appealing to my eye than a plain wall could ever be.
But painting at the bomb shelter is now off-limits. Sgt. Stocke claimed the area is a fire hazard, and the owners originally made the agreement out of fear.
Perhaps the most truthful reason for the change is Stocke’s belief that “allowing the taggers to practice on a free wall lets them refine their work before targeting illegal surfaces.” (Oh, no! Not more refined work!)
Aside from the aesthetics debate, there is a theory that says tolerance of these “quality of life” crimes, which include graffiti, property damage and prostitution, leads to tolerance of more serious personal crimes.
In other words, the police and the public will start to tolerate people assaulting each other because of the numbing effects of vandalism? I don’t buy it.
Nor do vandals represent a shady population of gateway criminals who start with graffiti and move on to robbery. Rather, from what I’ve seen, the majority of the painters are peaceful, even following an unwritten code of conduct. For example, one rule prohibits a painter from going over another’s work unless he has prepared a more spectacular piece.
Graffiti artists should not be allowed to paint at the expense of others. But it’s too bad the city, with its fear-inducing rhetoric, has pressured businesses to join with them in their crusade to clamp down on the more creative and skilled works of art.
Those who honestly want a place to paint, as opposed to the adrenaline rush of doing something taboo, would do well to distance themselves from the thoughtless scribbles reminiscent of dog markings.
As for the rest of us, rather than taking for granted that we don’t like graffiti, we should distinguish between harmless displays of creativity and human spirit, and the worthless scrawls that have made certain areas an ugly blight.
Next time you’re driving, ask yourself which you really prefer: a free splash of color that represents someone’s desire to make something beautiful or a blank bridge to drive through.

Brian Close’s column appears on Thursdays. He welcomes comments and suggestions to [email protected]