The Rewards of Persistence

We painted the wall once.
They tagged it.

We painted it a second time.
They tagged it again.

This week, we’ll be painting it for a third time.
If they tag it again, we’ll be back for a fourth time. (See pictures here. Click on the photos for captions.)

While some people might see this as an endless game of cat and mouse, we at Bronx Community Solutions see the positive side: the first time our Tag Team Graffiti Cleanup Unit painted the side of this Chinese restaurant, located across the street from a school in the East Tremont section of the Bronx, the tag was an immense canvas of bubble letters that ballooned across the entire wall.

The second time we had to paint, we saw that the artists had been a little less ambitious: there were some scattered silver scribbles that peppered the length of the wall. This time when we go back to paint, we’ll be painting over a two isolated tags. (Click here for pictures.)

We think that the artists are getting a little tired of us. And that is the point.

Graffiti thrives on two factors: visibility and ubiquity. "Taggers," who are mostly young males, seek attention from other artists and from the general public. Keep going after the graffiti and eventually they'll get discouraged.

It is a lesson learned from the Clean Train Movement in the late 1980s in New York City. Fed up with the fact that the majority of their trains were covered in graffiti, the Metropolitan Transit Authority took whole fleets of trains out of service until the graffiti was removed.

In addition to cleaning the trains, the MTA also starved taggers of the attention that they desired. Graffiti artists became frustrated that their artworks were destroyed so quickly and they tired of putting up tags that they knew would shortly be removed by the MTA. This approach stemmed the problem and resulted in a cleaner and mostly graffiti-free subway system.

A bigger problem, however, is changing the environment where graffiti occurs. The sheer amount of it in the Bronx’s urban surroundings has numbed residents to its presence and has made it harder to engage communities in the process of removal. The obvious sentiment is, “They’re just going to tag over whatever you clean up.”

One woman summed up that sentiment on a recent cleanup project. “You know you’re just wasting your time," she told our crew supervisor. "I swear to God, my son’s just gonna be back out there tonight painting right over it. He’s the one who does it and I can guarantee that it’s gonna be tagged up again in no time!”

Her statement contained a depressing kernel of reality: this Bronx mother feels so powerless to keep her neighborhood buildings free of the graffiti that brings down property values and costs city agencies thousands of dollars a year to clean up, that she believes herself unable to control even her own son’s role in the problem.

It also speaks to a larger, but connected problem: a missing connection between the boy and a youth program that might give him the attention he is seeking in a more constructive way.

Unlike a subway car, we cannot take a neighborhood "out of service." Our goal is to make modest progress toward changing an environment or culture where graffiti is taken for granted. It is a slow process and it happens in little steps. Over time, we hope that neighborhood residents reach the same point as our crew members, who tell us, “I really hope that this wall doesn’t get tagged again.”

Bronx Community Solutions is committed to that gradual process of improvement, however long it takes – or however many re-paintings it takes.


Anonymous said…
graffiti artists will tell you that they hate walls that get "buffed", so your persistence will eventually pay off ...
Ana Gabriela said…
I admire the persistence but maybe you could try to convert an act of vandalism in an expression of art. Here in Salvador (Bahia-Brazil) the present Major has been motivating what we call "street art" (arte de rua). Instead of painting the walls in one collor, the government of the city hires the youth to draw on the walls.