GRAFFITI: THE PROBLEM AND THE SOLUTION

University of South Australia, March

© Donald Richardson 1998


 
For over twenty years, state and local governments have had to waste millions of dollars each year cleaning up graffiti.  In spite of the problem having been discussed seriously by government bodies for at least half this time-span, there has been little or no progress in preventing graffiti occurring; in fact, it has become a significant national urban crisis.
 
    This paper proposes a solution, arguably the only feasible one.  However, it will only be effective in the longer term, for it aims at prevention based on education of the elements in the population which perpetrate graffiti.  As such, it will require both far-sighted political leadership and a significant investment of money and resources - although it is likely that it will be a more or less permanent solution and the expense will be justified (and paid for) in the long term through saving the cost of removal.
 
    The maximum potential for success would require a state-wide approach, with state and local government authorities in co-operation.  It is likely to be even more effective if this co-operation can occur on a national basis.
 
ANALYSIS OF THE PROBLEM
Many think that derelict urban sites can be improved with colourful murals, and there is some truth in this position.  However, murals can take other forms and be in other styles than those used by graffitists, and equating the two in this way can obscure the deleteriousness of the more general use of graffiti.
 
    Until recently, some individuals and authorities have been reluctant to curb graffiti in the belief that it is 'art' and that young people should be encouraged to exercise their creativeness freely.  In South Australia, the Adelaide Advertiser took this position until a few years ago.  Also, in 1990, the annual children's arts festival, 'Come Out', actually conducted workshops in graffiti-writing!  I suspect that this attitude often underlies official reluctance to act still.
 
    While encouraging creativeness in young people is a sound educational principle, whether graffiti as it is commonly practised is actually 'art' or not is often questioned (see below).
 
    Some concerned authorities have attempted to take graffiti off the streets and into the art galleries.  'Pump Up The Can' - The National Aerosol Art Exhibition, which was organised by the Victorian Association of Youth Committees and sponsored by the Australia Council for the Arts and the aerosol-can industry, toured some states in 1991-92.  Twenty-odd young people - mostly males aged between 16 and 23 - exhibited spray-can painted pictures.  The catalogue essay, written by cartoonist Kaz Cooke, was headed 'National Outrage - Stamp Out Other People's Fun'; but, instead of decrying street-graffiti as 'outrage', Cooke criticised 'responsible, grumpy, tedious people' for wishing to stop the young from having 'fun' writing graffiti!
 
    A ruse which some communities have adopted is to declare selected walls in public places 'legal' for graffitists to paint.  This may have some effect for a limited time but - due to the competition and rivalry - young graffitists keep painting out each other's work and otherwise causing strife.  And it is not long before all the legal walls in a district are covered.
 
 

 a 'legal wall' in St Kilda (Melbourne) in 2004.
 

 a genuine graffiti in Bilbao, Spain


    
 
None of these efforts has made any impression on the number of people who perpetrate street-graffiti - in fact, the reverse seems to have happened.  Clearly these approaches cannot work.
 
    It is clear that the overwhelming majority of street-graffitists are teenage or pre-teen boys, most of them from middle-class families and most not succeeding very well at school.  Some of them come from 'good' homes and 'good' schools.  For them, graffiti-writing is the only means they have of expressing their frustrations and making their mark on society, because they are not able to excel in sport and other fields.  In countries under repressive regimes, graffiti serve the legitimate political ends of the disenfranchised.  However, it could be argued that young people in Australia today have greater access to freedom of expression than any other group in any country in any other historical era has ever had, so graffiti-writing cannot be justified in the same way here.
 
    It is not surprising that attempts to legitimize graffiti have no effect because inherent in the activity is its underground nature and the challenge to developing boys of not only competition against peers but also of the risk of being caught in the act.  An additional challenge is that spray-cans and felt-pens ideally should be stolen, not purchased or borrowed.
 
IS IT ART?
There is no logical or aesthetic reason why a spray-can of felt-pen cannot be used to make a work of art.  Many legitimate artists use them.
 
    It is often said that even the academics cannot agree on what art is, but this is often over-stated.  It is a fact that what has characterised art in the western world for the last century or so (but not always elsewhere and at other times) is the claim by artists to free, creative, individualistic and (even) idiosyncratic self-expression in the pursuit of aesthetic ends.  Paradoxical as it may seem, the thing that acknowledged modern artists have most in common with each other is that the visual statements one makes bear little, if any, resemblance to those of another.  It is important to acknowledge this fact - and to recognise that teenage graffitists, although they are motivated by their own individuality, generally fail to produce art according to this criterion.  Most of their works are boringly repetitious stereotypes and clones of each other: in fact, they usually reproduce the limited range of models which began appearing on the streets of New York fifty years ago - so, they are not only un-original and uncreative, they are also un-Australian.  There is nothing 'modern' about them either, in spite of the protestations of their perpetrators and defenders.  Noted art critic, Robert Hughes, has pointed out that only a negligible handful of graffitists has ever graduated to acceptance as artists, and those who have are not of the first rank.
    If graffiti make any statement which could be described as 'political', it is an irredeemably callow one - as might be expected from a developing youth.  They are such as should be restricted to a discussion between a father and his son, not trumpeted publicly.  Many twenty-year-olds who have been graffitists when younger are thoroughly ashamed of their former activity and thankful that it was conducted anonymously.
    Some apologists for graffiti maintain that, because the world tolerates advertising posters, it should tolerate graffiti.  But posters are commissioned and funded for a particular function - ie marketing - and placed with the permission of the owners of walls.  In our commercial world, this is generally condoned, if not always admired.
 
 
REMEDIES
A number of remedies have been applied to the walls and/or the graffitists (if and when caught) after the event.  These include painting over the graffiti at the earliest possible moment after they have been made; requiring offenders to clean them off; and fining and other legal punishments.  More rarely used, is counseling the offenders and/or their parents and forcing them to confront their victims.  While these approaches may have some positive effects on individual offenders, because they are reactive they are of little use in preventing future offences by others; and, often walls cannot be completely restored by cleaning and/or painting.  There usually is some residual damage remaining after such treatment.    
 
    Other possible remedies (but which would require government regulations) include requiring all external walls to be covered with a graffiti-resistant material (not always possible or aesthetically desirable) and requiring paint-suppliers to display only dummy spray-cans and felt-pens or limiting their stocks to water-soluble media which are amenable to detergent-cleaning (not likely to affect sales and likely to reduce traders' losses through shop-lifting).  However, there appears to be no strong move to implement such remedies.
 
 
A LONG-TERM SOLUTION
None of the above remedies is likely to have much effect on future offences because these will be committed by a succession of ever-younger people who have the same essential motivation as their predecessors.  This motivation was ably described by the spokesperson for the 'Pump Up The Can' project, Mr Joe Morris.  In his essay in the catalogue, he says 'where the young people are coming from is an art base'.  And this position is often asserted by the graffitists themselves.
 
    Why would a need to make art manifest itself in essentially anti-social activity?  The
reason is that making graffiti is the only 'art' most young people know.  This is because, as the primary schools of the nation only rarely teach Art as a subject, their students can only learn about it from the popular culture and emulation of their friends.  The state schools do not teach Art because, whereas every state publishes a curriculum for primary-school Art, none provides the wherewithal for schools to implement it.  Other subjects are usually given priority in allocating scarce teaching and material resources.  The decision not to teach Art is one our community made a long time ago, but we are living with the outcome in terms of the pestilence in our urban environment.
 
    The most enlightened people in our community acknowledge that artistic expression is an essential human need and activity.  Art does, of course, have wider educational use and value than in the prevention of graffiti and many school students, particularly those who have more creative natures, find the school curriculum less than satisfying due to the absence of such subjects as Art and Music.  The lucky ones have extra classes in these subjects but, for the rest, there is only repression at school and, hence, anti-social behaviour out of school.  There are several research studies which confirm this fact.
 
    Programmes providing Art in schools would not only go a long way towards avoiding this scenario, it would also introduce students to a fuller range of art forms and media and, thus, channel their creative energies into more socially-acceptable forms of expression.
 
IMPLEMENTATION
Implementation of this scheme would be no small matter; however, it is argued that no other method of preventing graffiti has been effective to date, and the expense of providing this programme would - in the long run - be offset by the savings from clean-up expenses.  It would require the employment of advisory teachers to work in schools with classroom teachers to train and assist them in implementing the curriculum.  There would also be some expenditure on materials, but much of a primary-school Art programme can be covered using re-cycled and inexpensive materials.  It is even possible that traders and building-owners could be persuaded to contribute to the supply of materials, perhaps in kind.
 
    The implementation could be staged, commencing in the areas where graffiti is most prevalent and developing as necessary.  As most street graffitists start their activities at 11 or 12 years of age, it would be necessary for the programme to cover years 6 and 7 at least, but year 8 could also be included for maximum effect.  It is imperative, however, that advisory teachers be suitably trained in the subject to ensure that the programme rose above the popular culture already known to the students.  A number of trained Art teachers has been retired from the system in recent years and it is possible that some of these would make their services available.
 
    The programme would be enhanced if it were to be accompanied by one in civic awareness.
 
    When considering the expense of the proposed programme, authorities would do well to reflect upon the fact that, in the current employment situation, many more teenage boys are likely to be under-engaged in positive activites in the future and, hence, prone to indulge in what they see as the legitimate 'art' of their age-group.  It is quite possible that the country is on the verge of a veritable epidemic of graffiti damage unless quite radical preventive action is taken.    
 
    Some might wish to characterise the proposed programme as 'social engineering', but the same label can be applied to knock any education programme.  However, it cannot legitimately be applied to a scheme which does the opposite of preaching a particular set of values, and the wider community can only benefit from the improved environment and the ultimate savings.
 
 
GRAFFITI: THE PROBLEM AND THE SOLUTION
Donald Richardson, 1998


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