Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Weird Science - The Public Relations of Graffiti Wars

One of the reasons why I started blogging about graffiti was because I was getting frustrated with the abuse of 'research' by city counsellors who promise impossible things like "graffiti eradication" when they run for counsel. Rick Mercer has an excellent rant that sums up my feelings on such things.

Promises of beer in every fountain for those who can't drink;
Promises of graffiti eradication for those who can't think?

It is only recently (relative to the history of the world) that we see definitions of graffiti include such adjectives that imply it is fundamentally 'illicit', 'illegal', or 'unauthorized'. It wasn't until the 1980s that contemporary graffiti (in North America) has been framed as a social problem. It is no coincidence that this is also when society becomes enamoured with the promises of Reagonomics and Tough on Crime agendas (for people who fall through the crack of 'Reaganomics'). In Canada we continue to see huge cuts in social funding, heavy investment in prisons, while our news is more concerned about 'the beer' than 'brains' (Kai Nagata's inspiring blog post about this).

In these times of collapsing economies, politicians like to address minor problems that appear solvable while they are in office. Looks better on the CV.

When you don't know anything about graffiti, it probably looks like it will be easy to eradicate. Yeah, easy like rock and roll eradication, eh! Remember when Elvis "bent the mike toward him and performed a series of slow pelvic thrusts" during Hound Dog, and folks got similar notions?

Nevertheless, the journalists show up and politicians spout anti-graffiti sound bites, like parents still high on a "tough love" boot camp sales pitch for their 14 year old:
"Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has suggested that those who deface freeways with graffiti should have their thumbs cut off on television." Oscar romantically recalls beheading as a method of punishment that 'worked' : his lack history knowlege is as spectacular as a public hanging.  
In Toronto, Rob Ford avoided all the issues except for graffiti: “It just depreciates the value of everyone’s property, it turns it into a ghetto, and that’s not the kind of city I want to represent” (2011). Nice way to racialize graffiti and make poverty sound like a problem we can solve by 'painting it white', Rob!

In Ottawa, Councillor Marianne Wilkinson finds that the act of exclusion is an appropriate rallying cry by sticking graffiti - and writers - in the same category as 'litter':  “It’s wonderful to see individuals, students, families, community groups and businesses joining together with the common goal of keeping our communities litter-free and graffiti-free.” Important to note here that Wilkinson is a counsellor from Kanata, which is suburbia central (not exactly the hot bed of graffiti in our city).

When politicians realize that eradicating a global phenomena like graffiti is probably not a reasonable task for a municipality, they spring into PR mode because it's easier to buy services that make it look like you are doing something than it is to admit you didn't understand the issue before you started talking like you were Napoleon Bonaparte of graffiti. And, the meter starts running...

The City of Edmonton made a big media splash about of their investment in buying the services of a MGM Management to help them in their eradication attempts of graffiti. MGM Management does not specialize in graffiti culture. It is a BC based environmental consulting firm headed by part of the legal team who defended the City of Walkerton.

City counsellors in Edmonton now have a shiny new report and a database to talk about in the media. Then they annoy me most by making ridiculous claims that the report does not even attempt to do (namely, prevention of vandalism and bringing criminal charges against writers):
"Edmonton’s first-ever audit of graffiti signatures, or tags, is helping police and the city prevent vandalism by tracking and charging repeat offenders, says Coun. Amarjeet Sohi."
Police have been taking pictures of graffiti for years. They know you cannot convict someone criminally for 'vandalism' because someone found markings that 'look' like work you may have done by you in the past*. Someone else could have written it, afterall. Sometimes writers also change names and style over time. Some municipalities, however, are beginning to use databases to pursue civil cases.

  Paying private firms for graffiti audits is like hiring Magnum P.I. to count graffiti tags on mailboxes.

Taxpayers need to ask themselves if that is a valid use of public resources, given that this is more about ego than actual public harm? Remember, in the case of Ottawa, more people complain about pets than graffiti (see previous blog post here) . It also points to a shift away from public policing, towards relying on a privatization of policing - where people's property takes priority over public peace (see Stats Can for a broad comparison of these two types of policing).   As for being a tool to measure if graffiti is 'increasing or decreasing': the audit CAN speak about the count of tags in those exact spots if the city pays the company to come re-audit later on (meter running), but that's it. Graffiti moves. When buffing and increased policing targets one location, writers find new spots. The audit is not intended to 'catch vandals' or eradicate graffiti; it's important to note that the report makes no such promises, either.

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