by Mateja Mihinjac
This blog was inspired by a recent trip to my home village of 6,000 residents. Ever since I can remember, every few months the graffiti in the railway underpass near my house is painted over and the broken lights fixed. Shortly after fixing, the signs of vandalism reappear and a few months later the graffiti reappears. This has been occurring for the last 30 years.
GRAFFITI MANAGEMENT PROGRAMS
At the start of my criminology career, I learned that rapid graffiti removal programs were the most efficient way to address the problem because they deny graffiti offenders or “artists” the reward of having their work seen by others. In the 1980s, the famous Broken Windows Theory began with one such program in the New York City subway system’s Clean Car Program – graffiti was removed and vandalism repaired.
Through subsequent research and practical work I learned this approach might not be very effective and cost-beneficial as it is costly, may lead to displacement, fails to account for various motivations in the offenders, and generally fails to permanently eliminate the problem.
Since then other approaches appeared for addressing graffiti. One approach focuses on anti-graffiti materials and surfaces, increased penalties for “offenders”, and community clean-ups. Another approach designates graffiti walls and education or mural programs for offenders, such as the successful program for talented graffiti artists described in on this blog site by our team member Anna Brassard.
While some cities successfully integrate both approaches, other cities are more polarized in their graffiti management approaches. For example in Ottawa, city leaders maintain a strict no-graffiti policy apart from designated legal graffiti walls and murals under the City’s mural program.
Conversely, the mayor of the Colombian capital of Bogota has decriminalized graffiti after a tragic event in 2011 when a young artist was fatally shot. Apart from designated off-limit surfaces, graffiti artists in Bogota are free to express their creativity across the city. Graffiti is now integrated into city life and, interestingly, has become a major attraction for visitors.
I don’t argue for one approach over another since different contexts require different solutions. However, if an approach remains unsuccessful over a number of decades, such as in the railway underpass in my home village, it is time to consider alternative strategies. One missing link, however, is the limited voice of local community members.
NEGOTIATED CONSENT OR ZERO TOLERANCE?
In her reflection on developing a graffiti strategy for the city of Melbourne, criminologist Alison Young recommended against the city’s zero-tolerance approach with increased criminalization of graffiti artists, the approach which local government had adopted at the time.
She argued for self-regulation where property owners and local public would have a say in the image and identity of their local part of public space by either retaining it or by requesting the local government to remove the newly emerged graffiti. The thinking was that if local communities were given an opportunity for such self-governance, they might develop a greater sense of ownership and care for the local environment.
The Melbourne strategy has worked - today the city has a successful street graffiti program receiving world-wide acclaim. That success has turned into a major tourist attraction and economic success story for Melbourne including the popular Melbourne Street Art Tours by local tour companies and the annual Melbourne Stencil Festival.
Since 2010 the city has applied a hybrid approach where they now include the voice of business owners in deciding whether graffiti should be retained.
Melbourne provides an innovative answer to the question of whether we should eliminate graffiti, accept it, or channel freedom of expression in a positive direction for the artists and local communities. Despite a plethora of graffiti management practices, one thing is certain: graffiti is here to stay.