Tagging Graffiti

At 7:00 a.m., you roll into the parking lot ready to get your day started only to find the building covered in spray-painted graffiti. It happens everywhere–from small-town parks in cities like Delhi, Ohio, to large metropolitan areas like Philadelphia. Mix together young people with idle time, toss in a dash of absent supervision, add a pinch of peer-pressure, access to spray paint and a blank wall, and you have all the ingredients for a graffiti problem.

To solve this, chip away at the root cause by eliminating the bragging rights. In the early 1990s, Philadelphia was plagued with graffiti, or tagging. Painting over the constant assault of spray paint proved futile for some business owners because the freshly painted wall simply provided a crisp canvas rather than a deterrent to vandalism.

Graffiti On, Graffiti Off

Early one morning, Sandy Monahan, director of the Delhi Parks and Recreation Department, discovered that the newly developed skatepark had been tagged, so she began to follow the strict policy of graffiti-on, graffiti-off cleanup when she was stopped by several youth. “The skatepark kids approached me, and were upset about the graffiti,” says Monahan. “They didn’t want it on their plaza, and about a dozen kids volunteered and scrubbed off the paint that same day.”

“When you take it down immediately–very early in the morning–vandals are discouraged,” says Deborah Lamm Weisel, research assistant professor with North Carolina State University, who specializes in crime and policing with an emphasis on street crime. “Their motivation is to put it up and for people to see it, but if it is taken down before anyone has a chance to see it, that thwarts their desire to redo it.”

The Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN), a nonprofit organization, was formed in 1984 to combat graffiti vandalism. The city also operates a graffiti-abatement team that removes graffiti from government buildings and privately owned structures within 48 hours.

“It’s the broken-windows theory,” says Thomas Conway, deputy managing director of PAGN. “When you allow graffiti to build up, it creates a sense of hopelessness and despair in the neighborhood. Then the criminal element feels that it can move in, and law-abiding citizens feel they are not being taken care of and begin to not believe in the system.”

“In 1996, we cleaned roughly 3,000 properties,” says Conway. “In fiscal year 2008, we cleaned over 112,000 properties.” These include private and government property as well as street signs. The Graffiti Abatement Team has even removed graffiti from road signage over busy Interstate 95. The program also provides paint and painting supplies free of charge to citizens to paint over graffiti.

“If you do nothing about the graffiti, it creates a domino effect,” says Lamm Weisel. “Because one piece of graffiti attracts more graffiti, and when law-abiding citizens see graffiti, they think gangs. So then you lose your law-abiding citizens as patrons, and attract people who don’t follow the rules.”

Think Like A Vandal

Having park officers or local law-enforcement tour parks may help decrease the amount of graffiti vandalism, but it consumes manpower and resources. Instead, consider creative alternatives. Stopping vandalism requires an understanding of what type of vandalism is affecting a facility. Determine if it is a one-time, random act, a habitual tagging, or an act that is gang-related as well. Lamm Weisel says, “By determining the frequency and type of vandalism, you can then begin to interrupt those patterns.”

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