Graffiti: Art or vandalism?

U.S. cities fear its spread

March 23, 1996
Web posted at: 5 p.m. EST

From Reporter Kathleen Koch

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Graffiti is spreading from cities to rural America.

An estimated $6 billion was spent nationwide in 1994 alone on cleaning up and preventing more of the bright, sometimes threatening, scrawl.

They spray and run. Some are gangs marking territory, but most are just taggers scrawling their names or symbols to gain personal recognition.


Experts and city leaders gathered near Washington this week to form a battle plan against graffiti. They fear graffiti is threatening the survival of entire communities.

"The neighborhood begins to deteriorate, and then that invites first minor crime and then major crime," said Richard Condon, who organized the graffiti conference. "We can see this in a lot of our cities where graffiti has just taken over."


Getting kids to clean up their graffiti doesn't work. Experts say they only learn how to do it better so it can't be removed as easily next time.

Murals help -- to a point -- keeping one wall clean, but not those around it.

Washington D.C.'s transit authority agrees with most that the best approach is zero tolerance -- removing graffiti within 24 hours.

"If we allow graffiti to stay on the car, then it encourages others to vandalize and mark the cars with graffiti," said Lem Proctor of the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority

Los Angeles is trying a different approach: covering the taggers' canvases.


"You plant these quick-growing vines that take very little maintenance or very little water," said Gary McAdam of Operation Clean Sweep in Los Angeles. "The vines grow up the building and they just don't touch them."

A sociologist with the Graffiti Task Force in Suffolk County, New York, Vicki Wilson, says some are looking to cyberspace for a graffiti alternative to concrete space.

"They're saying scan your tags, achieve your fame over the Internet, but then stay off the streets," said Wilson.

Tougher laws, such as making parents responsible for some of the billions of dollars in yearly cleanup costs, are making a difference.

But not when police departments are already stretched to the limit addressing violent crime.


"Sometimes it's difficult to go out of service, lock up a person doing graffiti," said Sgt. Donald Lyddane of the Washington Metropolitan Police. "Especially if it's some kid with no criminal record."

One former tagger insists kids who spray graffiti don't need to be jailed.

"They are just basically telling you, 'Hey, I need some help. I need you to pull me in,'" said Luis Cardona, Executive Director of D.C. Barrios Unidos. "But they are not going to tell you that. That's how I used to feel." (85K AIFF sound or 85K WAV sound)

Call it vandalism or call it art -- graffiti seems to be an addictive habit.

Some fear that the bright spray is a symbol of the inner decay of a generation of young people that can only find fulfillment on the run.

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