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Graffiti: Graffiti Legal Situation

Graffiti Legal Situation
Graffiti is subject to different societal pressures from popularly-recognized art forms, since graffiti appears on walls, freeways, buildings, trains or any accessible surfaces that are not owned by the person who applies the graffiti. This means that graffiti forms incorporate elements rarely seen elsewhere. Spray paint and broad permanent markers are commonly used, and the organizational structure of the art is sometimes influenced by the need to apply the art quickly before it is noticed by authorities.

In an effort to reduce vandalism, many cities have designated walls or areas exclusively for use by graffiti artists. Some have suggested that this discourages petty vandalism yet encourages artists to take their time and produce great art, without worry of being caught or arrested for vandalism or trespassing. Others disagree with this approach, arguing that the presence of legal graffiti walls does not demonstrably reduce illegal graffiti elsewhere.

While some perceive graffiti as a method of reclaiming public space, many others regard it as an unwanted nuisance, or as expensive vandalism requiring repair of the vandalized property. One can view graffiti as a 'quality of life' issue, and many people suggest that the presence of graffiti contributes to a general sense of squalor and a heightened fear of crime. Advocates of the "broken window theory" believe that this sense of decay encourages further vandalism and promotes an environment leading to offenses that are more serious. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani's subscription to the broken window theory promoted an aggressive anti-graffiti campaign in New York. However, throughout the world, authorities often, though not always, treat graffiti as a minor nuisance crime, though with widely varying penalties.

Chicago's mayor, Richard M. Daley created the 'Graffiti Blasters' to eliminate graffiti and gang-related vandalism. The bureau promises absolutely free cleanup within 24 hours of a phone call. The bureau uses paints (common to the city's 'color scheme') and baking-soda based solvents to erase all varieties of graffiti.

In 1984, the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN) was created to combat the city's growing concerns about gang-related graffiti. PAGN led to the creation of the Mural Arts Program, which replaced often hit spots with elaborate, commissioned murals that were protected by a city ordinance, increasing fines and penalties for anyone caught defacing a mural.

Community cleaning squads have responded to graffiti. In France, the Protestant youth group Éclaireurs de France took their graffiti-scrubbing into the Meyrieres Cave near the French village of Bruniquel in Tarn-et-Garonne, where they carefully erased the ancient paintings from the walls, earning them the 1992 Ig Nobel Prize in archaeology.

Graffiti made the news in 1993, over an incident in Singapore involving several expensive cars found spray-painted. The police arrested a student from Singapore American School, Michael P. Fay, questioned him and subsequently charged him with vandalism. Fay pleaded guilty for vandalizing the car in addition to stealing road signs. Under the 1966 Singapore Vandalism Act, originally passed to curb the spread of communist graffiti in Singapore, the court sentenced him to four months in jail, a fine of 3,500 Singaporean dollars (US $2,233 or 1,450 British pounds), and a caning. The New York Times ran several editorials and op-eds that condemned the punishment and called the American public to flood the Singaporean embassy with protests. Although the Singapore government received many calls for clemency, Fay's caning took place in Singapore on May 5, 1994. (Fay originally received a sentence of six lashes of the cane, but the then President of Singapore Ong Teng Cheong finally agreed to reduce his caning-sentence to four lashes.)

In 1995 Mayor Rudolph Giuliani of New York set up the Anti-Graffiti Task Force, a multi-agency initiative to combat the perceived problem of graffiti vandals in New York City. This began a crackdown in "quality of life crimes" throughout the city, and one of the largest anti-graffiti campaigns in U.S. history. That same year Title 10-117 of the New York Administrative Code banned the sale of aerosol spray-paint cans to children under 18. The law also requires that merchants who sell spray-paint must lock it in a case or display cans behind a counter, out of reach of potential shoplifters. Violations of the city's anti-graffiti law carry fines of $350 per count. Both the full text of the law and an opposing viewpoint written by famous NYC graffiti artist Zephyr appear online.

The Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003 became Britain's latest anti-graffiti legislation.

In August 2004, the Keep Britain Tidy campaign issued a press release calling for zero tolerance of graffiti and supporting proposals such as issuing "on the spot" fines to graffiti offenders and banning the sale of aerosol paint to teenagers. The press release also condemned the use of graffiti images in advertising and in music videos, arguing that real-world experience of graffiti stood far removed from its often-portrayed 'cool' or 'edgy' image. To back the campaign, 123 British MPs (including Prime Minister Tony Blair) signed a charter which stated: Graffiti is not art, it's crime. On behalf of my constituents, I will do all I can to rid our community of this problem.

The city of Albuquerque, New Mexico has had an aggressive anti-graffiti program since the mid-1990s. The city regarded its heavily-tagged arroyos, bridges and sound barrier walls as an eyesore. Reports emerged of taggers suffering injury and death attempting to tag their gang's area or while spray painting graffiti on the bridges. Each park and arroyo now has a sign posted that gives the telephone number to the Albuquerque Tagger's Hotline, and a website exists where citizens can report taggers or graffiti online. Most stores in the metro area will not even sell spray paint without seeing an ID, and some have gone so far as to lock the spray paint away. Punishments include fines, community service and jail.

On January 1, 2006, it became illegal for a person under the age of 21 to possess spray-paint or permanent markers in New York City for the purpose of creating graffiti.


There is an unfortunate equivocation about how both the public and the authorities regard graffiti, which has the effect that there is still as much of it about as there was 10 years ago. Many people are loath to condemn it, believing it to be a legitimate form of "youth art"; the police are unable to catch the perpetrators and councils do little more than grizzle and just clean off the walls.

The problem is that we tend to conflate the legal/ethical aspect with the aesthetic and - unless and until this is recognized - the defacing of urban property will continue unabated.

It is an undeniable fact that, because they are perpetrated on walls without the permission of their owners, both "tags" and the (more elaborate) "pieces" are property damage and, therefore, illegal. This is often ignored by those who think that the colorful accretions to the back walls of sheds and along fences and railway tracks improve the aesthetics of these places. But such people should reflect on whether this improvement might not be better achieved by a simple coat of paint, planting native shrubs or with properly-designed murals like those on the sound-baffle walls that line freeways.

An unquestionable corollary of this is, of course, that those who know the identity of graffitists are duty bound to report them to the police and, by electing not to do so, they place themselves in as untenable a legal position as the perpetrators are in.

But, serious as the legal situation is, it is even more relevant to examine graffiti in terms of what the perpetrators claim it to be - art: indeed, no less than the art of the future. They believe that they are pioneers in an arcane, futuristic medium that will eventually be recognized for what it is. This is evidenced by the term "piece", which is an abbreviation of masterpiece.

The two most significant components of art are content (what the work is "about") and form (how it "looks"). And it is the form of graffiti that many find admirable. However, this too is derivative - and boringly repetitive as well. It is only minimally creative or original. In spite of the protestations of its perpetrators, it is really a very conservative art form.

Thus, graffiti is demonstrably "wrong" on both legal/ethical and aesthetic criteria.

But is graffiti really art? Most would agree that tags are no more than vandalism, but pieces must, in principle, qualify as art because they are the considered graphic expression of individual humans.

A mural, properly so called, is not any picture on a wall but one that has been designed specifically for the particular wall, taking into account its dimensions, colors, the placement of openings etc. And, of course, it will only have been done with the permission of the wall's owner, and after planning approval from the local authority. None of this happens with graffiti.

The first item identified by a graffitist is the fact that often the cost of removing the image is coupled with the associated costs of vandalism, including torn seats on trains and broken windows at premises, which give a blurred idea of the financial extent of the damage. Also, the statement that materials are stolen is questioned.

There has been an increase in graffiti in public places in the form of tagging, as opposed to paintings, but this is claimed to be a reaction to councils destroying both legal and illegal images. The use of the term graffiti is also one of contention - it has become a general term for all manner of outside work on buildings, and has a stigma associated with it from years of media use.
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