Back Against a Wall

There’s the danger of injury or arrest, but they’ll keep taking the risk. More than anything, graffiti writers want their work to be seen. But is it a crime or is it art?

The kid has been caught with marker in hand, defacing downtown landmarks with a hastily scribbled, stylized signature, the sort of mark those in the graffiti scene call a “tag.” The law calls it an assault on a neighborhood. Now in Providence District Court, the kid’s lips quiver; he looks sheepish and scared. Then-mayor David Cicilline shows no mercy. “It demoralizes people,” he says. “It devalues property.”

In the end, the judge treats him no worse than any first-time offender. He’s slapped with community service, which typically means several weekends spent filling bags with highway litter. The penalty is meant to be tedious, but it’s a safe bet those minutes pass faster than his day in court.

It’s the same story across America. In the eyes of big-city mayors, graffiti is an urban scourge, a blight to be battled daily. A dozen or more cities (Providence among them) have special clean-up squads — armed with solvents, cover-up paint and high-pressure hoses — that hit the streets each morning to erase defilements that appeared the night before. Laws and ordinances have been passed to bar merchants from selling spray paint to anyone younger than eighteen. A few states, including Massachusetts, have made graffiti a felony, punishable by hefty fines and real jail time.


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