Drawing the line

Graffiti delivers a message. It’s a signal to other taggers; a deadly warning to rival gangs; a commentary on the kind of society in which youth earn respect from one another by vandalizing property.

The markings also tell visitors that a neighborhood is not cared for by the people who live there or the city workers who serve it. They are a statement about a city government’s failure to tend to basic housekeeping. By the same token, quick removal of the scrawls puts residents and visitors on notice that the community is a place worth defending.

Amid the latest in a succession of graffiti spikes, Los Angeles residents have increasingly responded as soon as tagging appears by calling the city at 311 and reporting it. It takes too long for contractors to remove it -- three-to-five working days, long enough for taggers to broadcast their messages and take credit for their perverse handiwork. But residents at least have a safe way to respond.

Another potentially positive step is Assembly Bill 2609, sponsored by the city of Los Angeles, introduced by Assemblyman Mike Davis (D-Los Angeles) and signed into law last week by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The new law requires a person convicted of tagging to clean up his or her mess. It makes clear that cleanup must be part of the sentence, unless the judge finds that it would be dangerous. Where appropriate, the offender could be required to keep the damaged property free of graffiti for up to a year.


Judges must be careful. In the upside-down culture of the street, removing graffiti can be deemed a sign of disrespect and draw deadly retaliation from criminal gangs. Taggers can and should be punished -- but not with their lives.

The new law can form an important part of a city’s response to vandalism, but the most effective tool will remain quick removal. To speed the pace in Los Angeles, the city needs more people on the street doing the cleanup. There will continue to be a need for paid contractors, no matter how many convicted taggers are sentenced to take up paintbrushes and rollers instead of markers and spray cans.