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Law Mon Jul 28 2014

Chicago's Attempts at Fighting Graffiti

Photo by Duncan C./Flickr

Mayor Rahm Emanuel introduced a bill in city council on Wednesday that would double the fines for those who graffiti in the city, going from $500 to $1000. This is a measure intended to fight graffiti in the city, but it wouldn't be the first effort Chicago has made.

Among the various interesting laws in Chicago is a law prohibiting the sale of spray paint within city limits. The ordinance, passed in 1992 by the city council, was intended to curb graffiti in the city. It was then challenged in multiple courts by spray paint manufacturers before being upheld in 1995 by Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who viewed the ban as constitutional.

As a result of this ordinance, if you want to spray a new coat of paint on a lawn chair, you have to buy a can of spray paint in the suburbs. Or perhaps you're studying art at one of Chicago's universities and want to see how spray paint looks on canvas. Again, you have to go to the suburbs.

This also means that if you need spray paint for tagging or spraying graffiti on the side of a building -- not all graffiti is tagging -- you can also go to the suburbs and purchase spray paint.

There are two problems with that law. One is the obvious assumption that people will not bother traveling to other parts of the Chicago area to obtain spray paint. The other one is the assumption that spray paint is only used for vandalism when it has other harmless applications, that is as long as you don't wear your favorite pair of shoes when using a can of spray paint outside.

As anyone who lives in Chicago knows, being unable to purchase spray paint in city limits has not led to a reduction in graffiti.

It is worth noting that 1993 then-Judge Marvin Aspen of the Federal District Court, when ruling the ban as unconstitutional, pointed out the ordinance was unlikely to actually reduce graffiti, according to the New York Times.

The logic behind the proposal from Mayor Emanuel is clear. If people will have to shell out even more money when they get caught doing graffiti that might deter them.

There is a key phrase in the above paragraph, and that is "when they get caught."

In some situations it might be easier to catch people such as when there are working surveillance cameras on the exteriors of businesses or on CTA property, although it's worth noting there are even steeper penalties in some instances of vandalism. On residential properties it might be a little more difficult to catch someone who tags or does graffiti. There are some buildings that may have surveillance cameras on the grounds, but a majority of Chicagoans do not live in buildings with surveillance systems. In college I would find myself taking the trash out, opening the back door and noticing someone tagged the back door again, and then calling 311 to file a graffiti removal request. This is what most Chicagoans have to do.

The chances of those who do graffiti in Chicago getting caught seems slim. People who take the L know of the places you can find graffiti in the city, often in spots where it seems like someone has to have a cherry picker in order to spray elaborate designs on the side of buildings. If they can do that, it could be assumed they're dexterous at not getting caught by the police while creating graffiti.

If the city is serious about battling graffiti efforts need to be made beyond adding more ordinances. In the case of more artistic graffiti, the city could try to find partner with groups to encourage people to find artistic outlets outside of private and public property. Based on the past efforts of the city and the idea behind the current effort, it seems unlikely the city will successfully curb graffiti.

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Colm Barry / August 6, 2014 2:15 PM

"… a law prohibiting the sale of spray paint within city limits …" I had to read that sentence twice. "… assumption that people will not bother traveling to other parts of the Chicago area to obtain spray paint …" Well, even back in 1992 there already was mail order. So even quadriplegic graffiti artists that roam Chicago at night would get their share. "... unable to purchase spray paint in city limits has not led to a reduction in graffiti ..." neither has drug prohibition led to lower consumption or addiction rates, however, it has created more vandalism from addicts desperate for a "fix" and burgling in inefficient ways. The city -all cities- actually need to take a totally different approach, based on some sound sociological and criminological studies as to what drives graffiti sprayers, many of which will fall into certain distinct groups, some open to compromise and reasoning, some less so. Then establish a culture of "responsible" spraying etc. and finally whittle the illegal community down to a percentage one can live with, just like we live with people who throw trash right in front of public bins.

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