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Graffiti Artists, Business Owners Say Higher Fines Won't Work

By Quinn Ford | June 26, 2014 5:37am
 Mayor Rahm Emanuel wants to increase penalties for graffiti.
Graffiti Fine Increase
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CHICAGO — Graffiti artists and business owners may be natural adversaries in this city, but they seem to agree on at least one thing.

Some on both sides say they think increasing fines is the wrong way to stop unwanted graffiti.

That comes after Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced earlier this week he wants to stiffen penalties on vandalism.

Under his proposal, fines for graffiti would double from $750 to at least $1,500, with a maximum fine of $2,500 for repeat offenders. Fines for vandalizing public property would also double from $500 to $1,000.

Quinn Ford spoke with some graffiti artists about whether the fines would deter them:

Money from the fines goes into the city's general corporate fund, and the plan comes after Emanuel added nearly $1 million to the city's Graffiti Removal Program in the 2014 budget.

City officials say harsher fines will make taggers think twice before picking up a can of spray paint.

"Mayor Emanuel believes in a comprehensive approach to combating graffiti citywide," said Molly Poppe, spokeswoman for the Department of Streets and Sanitation. "By increasing fines coupled with investing additional resources to ensure rapid graffiti removal, the city feels this will deter future graffiti vandals as well as keep our neighborhoods safe, cleaner and more vibrant."

Some of Chicago's longtime graffiti artists say harsher penalties won't be a deterrent.

Artists like BboyB, a member of the well-known graffiti group Artistic Bombing Crew, said a lot of the graffiti writing, or tagging, around the city is done by young people who are just getting into the graffiti subculture.

"There's something that attracts you to it. So you're going to do it, and at that age, you don't care about fines. You don't care about bans. You don't care about jail time because, you know, you're 12," he said. "Nothing the city can do will prevent graffiti writing."

Sivel, a Chicago-born graffiti artist who has been around since the 1980s, said city leaders also don't understand the city's graffiti subculture.

"Anybody that thinks that a monetary amount is going to stop somebody from living their lifestyle isn't approaching the situation with any kind of intelligence," he said.

Sivel added he understands that aldermen want to keep their neighborhoods clean but said most young people who create graffiti come from "impoverished backgrounds" and can't pay thousands of dollars in fines.

"Is this just to please the citizens of this city and make them think their politicians are working for them? Who knows," he said. "But at the end of the day, [city officials] know that most of these kids that are going to get caught and charged with this fine" aren't going to have the money to pay the fines "and neither do their parents."

City officials say graffiti complaints have risen in recent years. Through June 19, there were almost 60,000 requests to remove graffiti from buildings around the city, according to the Department of Streets and Sanitation. Last year, there were about 137,000 requests, up from about 110,000 requests in 2012.

And in 2013, 528 people were arrested for graffiti-related offenses, and 564 people were arrested in 2012, according to Police Department spokesman Marty Maloney.

Sivel attributes some of that increase to former Mayor Richard Daley leaving office. Daley was "like the gestapo" when it came to attacking the graffiti, Sivel said. The city imposed fines, created a dedicated police unit to go after taggers, enforced a 1995 ban on the sale of spray paint within city limits and worked aggressively to remove graffiti.

BboyB says some of the city's tactics, in particular banning the sale of spray paint, undoubtedly had an effect on curbing the amount of graffiti on city buildings, trains and buses.

Back in the '80s and '90s, "every kid in the neighborhood was a graffiti writer," he said, but today the number of painters is a lot smaller. Still, upping the fines will not have an effect on graffiti writing, he said.

Some from the city's business community also say doubling fines is not the answer.

Jaime di Paulo, who heads the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, said graffiti was a significant problem in his neighborhood.

"What we're doing now, it's putting a Band-Aid on the issue ... and it's not just in Little Village, it's everywhere," di Paulo said. "We're pushing for the city to legislate some real punishment for the guys actually tagging."

That would include more community service as punishment for those caught and pursuing graffiti prosecutions as criminal property damage, di Paulo said. He said fines ultimately fall on the parents, if they get collected at all.

"Who pays? The poor kids are 15 years old. They don't work," he said. "So they go after the parents ... The parents are the ones getting punished."

Both di Paulo and the self-described street artists say it is important to distinguish between gang graffiti and street art. Gang graffiti, like marking territory or making threats, hurts the entire community, but both types can be headaches for business owners, di Paulo said.

Ultimately, heavy fines are not the answer, di Paulo said. Even criminal punishment will not deter young taggers looking to hone their skills and become graffiti artists, according to street artists.

Tagging or graffiti writing is a stepping stone to graffiti art, BboyB said. The Logan Square native, who asked his art name be used, said the city should establish walls around Chicago for kids who want to create graffiti, something akin to how the city handled skateboarders by building skate parks.

Sivel agreed, saying programs that encourage graffiti as an artform can even be an alternative to gangs for children.

"These kids are just looking for an identity and a way to express themselves," he said. "Art is the perfect way to start to get kids to believe in themselves."