A little spray paint never hurt anyone, right?
DALLAS â" The Dallas Morning News reports that the city will begin to establish "free walls" for graffiti artists hoping to divert uninvited graff toward approved spaces ("Dallas will try to reduce graffiti by giving artists 'free walls'," August 22). The story opened thusly:
Daniel âTony Slowmoâ Skelton used to run from cops. Now he runs with them.
Slowmo once flouted the law with his illegal artwork, but is now working with Dallas police to redirect the energies of street artists into legal mural projects. Similar efforts have met with success in Toronto, Phoenix and Venice, Calif.
âThe youth really have to choose what path they want to go,â said Slowmo, 35. âWeâre just trying to lead by example.â
The details are being ironed out, but the initiative involves establishing âfree wallsâ where artists can legally paint. The city would sponsor competitions among street artists. Those who participate must sign a pledge to paint only in legal areas.
âThe days of, âLetâs arrest them all and let God sort them out,â is just not smart on crime,â Police Chief David Brown told Dallas City Council members during a recent meeting of the Public Safety Committee.
âThis is an attempt to be smarter on crime.â
Traditional city and police efforts largely focused on arresting vandals and painting over illegal graffiti. You only have to look around to see they have met with limited success.
There are about 60 new reports each week of illegal graffiti in Dallas, and an average of about eight arrests a month. The most common form of graffiti is tagging, âchronic random markingsâ on walls, buildings, streets signs, overpasses and other property. Only an estimated 5 percent of graffiti in Dallas is estimated to be gang-related.
Grits considers this a step in the right direction, but IMO they city could go even farther. As discussed in 2010, I've "been advocating for quite a while on Grits that government begin to identify blank, under-utilized portions of the city landscape -- underpasses, concrete drainage areas, even the backside of street signs -- and allow street art there on a permission-based basis. Private property owners who wanted to commission free murals on outward-facing walls as a prophylactic against graffiti could also participate. Ideally, in this writer's opinion, the practice should be widespread, with available "canvases" across every city and content only limited by obscenity laws and disallowing hate speech and known criminal street gang references."
Indeed, five years ago Grits suggested, "as you drive around town over the next few days, start to pay attention to the spots where you most commonly see graffiti and ask yourself, would I object if a quality, youth-drawn mural were allowed here instead? Anywhere you see quickly scrawled graff that you consider a blight could potentially be a spot hosting an invited youth mural. In most cases, as with the support poles along the highways, such illustrations would improve the landscape, not mar it."
The main problem with "free walls" is that usually there aren't enough of them, and sometimes taggers ply their craft in the neighborhoods going to and from the free-wall spots. But expand the concept to include more spots and the strategy IMO has an exponentially greater chance of success.
The strategy would be intended to complement enforcement, not supplant it. But there are limits to how effective an enforcement-only strategy can be. In 2010, just 289 people were prosecuted for graffiti crimes statewide in Texas, with 212 of them getting misdemeanor probation. A lock-em-up approach can't solve the problem by itself, and graffiti cleanup has become a significant expense for many American cities. If free walls and allowing graff in underutilized public spaces could even reduce those costs at the margins, taxpayers would benefit. And if wall-writers can work on their projects without constantly looking over their shoulders and preparing to sprint away, there's a decent chance the overall quality of street art may improve, as well.
Much of the over-hyped rhetoric surrounding graffiti assumes it's mainly performed by criminal street gangs, but according to Dallas News, just 5% of graffiti in Big D stems from gangbangers. That means most graffiti is likely being performed by young people for whom wall writing (and perhaps a little pot smoking) is the most serious crime they commit. For them, maximum punishment isn't a significant threat because the risk of being caught on any given night is a helluva lot lower than, say, the dangers hanging off the side of a bridge like the one pictured above.
Grits is pulling for Dallas' experiment to succeed, and hopefully expand. IMO it's past time for a more thoughtful approach.
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