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Vandalism is not "art"

By Scott Tibbs, August 3, 2009

There has been some discussion of graffiti in Bloomington, with small business owners expressing frustration with the cost of cleaning up graffiti only to have it reappear. A few letters to the editor (see here, here and here) have defended graffiti "artists" and proposed ways to allow the "artists" to express themselves. So what should be done, and what steps can be taken to prevent more graffiti?

Before we can discuss the issue, we need to establish the foundations. Graffiti is vandalism, not "art." Whatever aesthetic value one might percieve when looking at graffiti, the "artist" (vandal) is selfishly using another person's private property. Instead of seeking ways to legally express himself, he causes damage to another person by defacing that person's property and secondary damage though the cost of repairing the vandalism.

One foolish suggestion is that business could help plan "artwork" to "compliment/beautify the business." Paying for paint for such "art" would be less expensive than repairing damage, after all. One thing that this person (and everyone else) needs to understand is that appeasement never works. When you give in to criminal acts for the purpose some perverse "compromise" (meaning "I get what I want and you live with it") we send the message that further destruction of private property will bring more concessions.

Another writer favorably compares graffiti to billboards. While this community has often looked down on billboards, the fact remains that billboards represent the use of private property with the consent of the owner. While some (including some in city government) disapprove, it is an agreement between consenting adults. The aesthetic preference for a "tag" or a billboard is irrelevant to the fact that graffiti steals use of private property while billboards are agreed to by consenting adults.

So what is the answer? Obviously, there needs to be some kind of penalty to discourage this vandalism. The vandal should be required to personally clean up the paint and pay for the cost to clean up anything he is unable to remove. There should be reasonable punitive damages on top of that. Known vandals should be prohibited from buying or possessing spray paint, in the same way that convicted felons are prohibited from buying firearms. If current law does not allow these remedies, then the law should be changed.