Graffiti conference seeks public's help
Neal J. Riley
Published 4:51 pm, Thursday, January 17, 2013
Graffiti is a more than $20 million-a-year problem in San Francisco, and though city officials put out a call Thursday to eradicate graffiti blight, there's still disagreement on how vandals should be punished.
At the first Zero Graffiti International Conference, hundreds of people from around the world gathered at St. Mary's Cathedral to discuss fighting graffiti and browse products to take spray paint and markers off any surface.
"Graffiti vandalism is a drain on our city's resources, impacting our neighborhoods and quality of life," said George Gascón, San Francisco's district attorney. "We ask the public to help out by reporting graffiti crime."
Split over penalties
Mohammed Nuru, the Department of Public Works director, said his agency takes an average of 3,000 calls a month about graffiti and has seen an increase in tagging on trees and artists' murals.
While his and other officials' public remarks focused on encouraging the public to report graffiti, Nuru said San Francisco judges are too lenient on vandals. He supports changing state law to make it mandatory that fines be issued in graffiti convictions, instead of assigning community service as a substitute.
"Imagine you're a judge and on your docket today you have people who have been involved in murder, domestic violence, and then you have this graffiti tagger," he said. "I don't think we're at a place where judges really understand that this is painful to a community or property owner. It's as painful as many other crimes they see in their court."
Nuru also suggested another state legislative change during his public remarks: requiring commercial truck drivers to show their vehicles are graffiti-free before renewing their registration.
Others, including Gascón, said they don't see harsher punishments as the answer.
"We can certainly increase penalties, but that's not always necessarily a good solution," he said, noting that some graffiti vandalism can be prosecuted as a felony depending on how destructive it is. "There may be some fine-tuning to the law that may be appropriate, but by and large, I think awareness, the community working together and education and prevention are what we really need to do."
According to Officer Martin Ferreira of the San Francisco Police Department Graffiti Abatement Unit, cleaning graffiti quickly is one of the most effective responses.
"A big idea in graffiti culture is they want to stay up on a location for a long period of time," he said. "When you paint over a graffiti vandal quickly, you're not allowing them to gain their notoriety."
Graffiti vandals are drawn to San Francisco for several reasons, including the bragging rights they might gain on the Internet from tagging such a renowned city, said Larry Stringer, the Department of Public Works' deputy director of operations.
"A post of a tag in San Francisco gives you a certain amount of status," he said.
Stringer favors mandatory fines for graffiti convictions, adding that some repeat offenders enjoy the community service that consists of cleaning up other graffiti because it can mean destroying the work of a rival vandal.
"Community service doesn't seem to be a strong enough deterrent, and they're coming back four or five times," he said.
The supervisorial district that includes the Western Addition and the Haight-Ashbury is the city's hardest hit by graffiti, Stringer said. New District Five Supervisor London Breed said she believes young taggers need an outlet and said youths were allowed to transform the walls of the African American Art and Culture Complex, which she ran.
"The best way to try and redirect our young people who are out there vandalizing our community is to give them alternatives to going around and spray-painting all over the place," she said.