Scratching the surface of a complex issue
By James Scolari 02/19/2009
AMONG THE MANY REMARKABLE TALES of Alexander the Great is the legend of the Gordian knot, a tangle of such surpassing complexity that it defeated all attempts at its solution. Those familiar with the tale know that Alexander is said to have solved it in a masterstroke — that it was a stroke of his sword rather than his more subtle faculties seemed to trouble neither the oracles of the age nor the historians who continue to recount the tale.
Such decisive strokes of inspiration are altogether rare in the contemporary age, especially in social policy; and yet the tangles with which we must contend are at least as complex as the twines of the fabled knot. Such is the case with the ongoing problem of graffiti in Ventura County. Yet unlike the legend, to date the point of our sword — in this case, of law enforcement — has yet to affect the masterstroke solution that so many desire. Among the disparate threads coming together to form the seemingly insoluble social knot are the imperatives of law enforcement, which attempts to safeguard the interests of property owners, who are supported by the impetus of the legislature, which is nuanced by the efforts of social advocates, who entreat on behalf of members of a disserved population, from which graffiti largely derives. The problem is rooted deeply in our culture and our history, in gaps of generation, socioeconomic status, political and social enfranchisement and an enduring ethic of dissent – all trending toward a collision course that, taken in a long view, does not seem to serve a sustainable social agenda.
While graffiti — most often manifested in its low-rent cousin, the deplorable practice of ‘tagging’ — seems to be a most contemporary expression, in fact the phenomenon comes to us with a long backstory, from ancient Greece to the Roman Empire and beyond. A broad array of often humorous graffiti was preserved by the ashes of Vesuvius on the walls of Pompeii (one would-be critic penned, “I wonder, O wall, that you have not fallen in ruins from supporting the stupidities of so many scribblers”), and U.S. soldiers famously left graffiti all across Europe in World War II, most notably with the tag “Kilroy was here.” It’s said that the pervasive Kilroy tag can be found in such far-flung locales as the Statue of Liberty’s torch, the underside of the Arc de Triomphe, the summit of Mount Everest and even the surface of the moon.
In all that time, a struggle has ensued between would-be scribes who mean to leave their mark on the public and private walls of their purview, and the authority figures that act in service of those who object to such transgressions and would put a stop to them. The latter endeavor must be reckoned a task of Herculean proportions, however, since each few years yields a new crop of wags who are young enough (the typical graffiti vandal being between the ages of 13 and 16), mischievous enough or disenfranchised enough to thumb their noses at law and propriety in practice of the ancient, irreverent art.
Yet that stalemate might be changing — at least in its dynamic if not its balance — as new trends, new tools and new approaches are applied to the status quo. With the advent of aerosol paints and permanent markers, a whole new dimension of ease and dynamism came into the graffitists’ hands, in many cases elevating the work to a vibrant and colorful art form, but also lending an aggravating indelibility to the thoughtless and destructive expression of miscreants with a will to raise a middle finger to society and authority.
That pervasive middle finger is anything but a lark — it’s a national problem against which deep resources and billions of dollars are currently in play; counties and municipalities are dead serious in the pursuit of their abatement policies, and tens of thousands of American youths are being caught up in the justice system as a result — a trap from which many may never fully emerge. While there are those who might suggest the act is a victimless crime, in fact in its most destructive aspect — as with, for example, the current trend of scratching tags into glass, a despicable act that currently mars most of the windows in Ventura’s historic downtown district — it’s a crime with victims practically on all sides: from the property owners who face a perpetual and expensive task in restoring their property; to taxpayers who foot the bill for not only restoration of public property but also for the cost of associated law enforcement, judiciary and probationary machinations; to faltering state, county and municipal budgets that would otherwise spend that money on more pressing imperatives; to youth and families who can’t hope to win in a collision with the wheels of justice. Truly, it’s a knot to rival Alexander’s, but its threads will not be so easily reckoned with.
First thread: Law enforcement
Corporal Al Gomez of the Ventura Police Department is the graffiti investigator for the City of Ventura. He documented more than 2,000 instances of graffiti vandalism in the last year alone. With equivalent caseloads in municipalities across the county, law enforcement faces a Herculean workload even to keep up, let alone to reverse the tide — and with public budgets in crisis across the state, the price tag for abatement becomes an increasingly hot topic. “Somebody has to be held accountable,” Gomez notes. “It’s a quality of life issue.” The point is inescapable — left to accrue, the avalanche of tags each year would quickly blight the landscape, spoiling the community’s visual charms and compromising the ability of local businesses to attract outside dollars to our markets. Corporal Gomez and his colleagues across the county have no intention of allowing that to happen, despite facing numerous challenges. “It can be a hard crime to solve,” he concedes. “Taggers are typically working in the late hours, when there are few if any witnesses, and those in a position to be witnesses are usually not willing to be ‘the rat.’ ”
Yet just as technology has elevated the taggers’ craft, so does it bring new tools into the hands of investigators. Widespread and ever-burgeoning video surveillance increasingly captures graffiti vandals at work in the late hours, and hi-tech firms are lending a welcome analytical impetus to the endeavor. One such firm is Graffiti Trackers Inc. of Long Beach, with whom the City of Ventura contracts. Graffiti Trackers equips Public Works staffers with GPS-enabled cameras; the staffers photograph each tag before it’s eradicated, and those photos are transmitted via satellite back to the home office. Analysts build databases from the evidence, generating cogent profiles of prolific taggers that greatly assist in not only the investigation and arrest of suspects but also in their prosecution. Perhaps most significantly, the work is also instrumental in supporting subsequent civil fines meant to provide restitution to public and private coffers that currently pick up the tab to erase the mark of the taggers’ controversial practice. Erasing that mark is priority one in most Ventura County abatement programs, and it’s a job well done. Thanks to the hard work of public employees, volunteers and hotline tipsters — and again, at deep expense — few tags survive even a single day.
Second thread: The legislature
Help is also offered to law enforcement from tough statutes in effect in both Ventura and Oxnard that pass the cost of graffiti abatement back to the perpetrators themselves or, in most cases, to their families. With civil fines of upward of $1,000 per tag tacked on to punitive criminal proceedings, high profile cases can be hit with fines in excess of tens of thousands of dollars.
Such statutes reflect a growing ‘zero tolerance’ ethic in the fight against graffiti, but also inspire deep divides in public opinion with regard to what comprises a best approach — as one faction strives for maximum punitive measures and another for social policy that supports families instead of fining them — leaving lawmakers caught between irresistible forces and immovable objects as they strive to craft workable, responsible and sustainable public policy.
“While local governments should review existing strategies, we must acknowledge that we cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” notes Moorpark Mayor Mark Hunter. “We must address the root causes. Graffiti is intrinsically linked to changes in society, including the breakdown or absence of a stable family unit, the lack of values education, and the inability of our societal infrastructure to communicate, develop, encourage and enforce basic fundamentals such as parental responsibility, respect for authority, respect for property and pride in our communities.”
Lieutenant Quinn Fenwick of the Ventura’s P.D. agrees. “There really is no magic bullet; we need to look at a broad range of tools; along with punishment, we need to be able to provide support and assistance to both parents and kids. One kid can do so much damage in a single evening — anything we can do to prevent that behavior beforehand would be a great help.” Lieutenant Quinn points to such groups as the Juvenile Justice Task Force as a fulcrum point where public institutions are seeking alliance with social resources to craft new alternatives.
Third thread: Social advocates
Meeting the institutional effort at the halfway point are a growing number of advocacy groups — like Oxnard’s Arts for Action (http://arts4action.wordpress.com/), which is likewise seeking alliance with any and all parties willing to lend a hand in crafting a new approach to the problem. “We’re against graffiti vandalism, too,” notes program director A. Tomas Hernandez Jr. “We just don’t believe that pushing families into poverty will solve the problem.” The group is pioneering such alternative initiatives as “Paint, Not Prison,” which seeks to turn the focus of probation toward “sweat equity” investments in graffiti abatement, as offenders themselves are put to work to erase the mark of taggers from community walls. The group’s principal mandate is to offer misdirected youth new, socially constructive tools for expression, offering programs in public mural projects, filmmaking, music and more.
The group notes that it’s one thing to levy steep fines to recover the costs of abatement, but it’s quite another to collect them. “To date, the City of Oxnard has issued over a million dollars in fines,” notes Canek Pena Vargas, “but they’ve only collected $17,500.” Vargas explains that a youth offender’s probation remains open as long as a given fine remains unpaid — meaning that in some cases, the book is never closed, and youthful indiscretion can be converted to a lifelong adversarial ethic.
Oxnard defense attorney Barbara Macri-Ortiz agrees. “Our policy is currently so punitive, kids get sucked into the justice system, and in many cases they never get out. We’re supposed to have a restorative justice system, supposed to be rehabilitating youth — but right now we’re spending millions of dollars on graffiti abatement, and we have more taggers than ever.” Macri-Ortiz is working with other jurists in both public and private practice to build a bridge between government and community groups, seeking to create alliances capable of re-energized social efforts that exceed the sum of their parts.
“We’re interested in talking to anyone who can help,” adds Leo Martinez, who, with partner Raul Lopez, founded The Lab (www.805lab.com), an organization that, like Arts for Action, seeks to redirect youthful expression into the arts. The soon-to-open Oxnard facility will offer open walls for graffiti art, and much-needed mentoring in art, music, graphic design and more. Paramount in the group’s mandate is to promote clearer understanding between all parties: “We want people to come and see what we’re doing,” Lopez explains, “parents, police, city officials — we’d love it if the mayor would come to our grand opening.”
“Kids aren’t going to listen to police, they might not even listen to their parents — but they will listen to guys like us,” Martinez offers. “We realize we need to present the ‘best of the best,’ both for the kids’ perception as well as society’s. There are so many misconceptions, on all sides.”
If there’s a common thread that runs throughout the complex issue it’s that communication will make the difference between success or failure — common to nearly every organization currently at work on the issue is the expressed desire for alliance, for new help, new tools and new approaches in a problem that will neither simply be covered up nor simply go away.