For the past two weeks, we have been running a feature in our paper and online that asks for your thoughts on how we wipe out the unsightly blight of graffiti in our community.
As reporter Eloise Aguiar wrote on Oct. 15, Honolulu police opened 1,111 graffiti-related cases last year and made 227 arrests. By the time that story ran, we had already surpassed those numbers with 1,145 cases and 228 arrests, with still 2 1/2 months to go in the year. Much of the increase was due to beefed-up police activity, but the increasing number (and a quick survey of our landscape) shows we've got to do something.
It's hard not to spot graffiti in Hawai'i. By my own personal inventory a few weeks ago, I spotted 12 examples on a seven-mile drive from home to work, including the defacement of a brand-new building off the H-1 Freeway and heavy markings on a couple of overpasses, a few walls of private businesses and several street signs. Questions arose: Who is doing all this, and for what purpose? Who is responsible for cleaning it up? What are the penalties if you get caught? Whom do you call if you see it happening, and how much it is costing us? Could we somehow create a forum for readers to respond and take action?
One of my key concerns was how to get readers as riled up as I was over this problem. I know that taggers crave publicity, and if we were to place numerous photos of graffiti in the paper or online, we'd be showcasing their work and encouraging more of the same. On the other hand, you can't work up much outrage over something you can't see. The more you are inundated with the offensive images, the more you are likely to respond. So I phoned a few contacts in law enforcement to ask their opinions.
One HPD officer explained that it's not a good idea to show graffiti of any sort because taggers see graffiti as their calling card, displaying their handiwork on www.MySpace.com accounts and in public places to identify their gangs and crews. In another city where I lived, we'd have to clean our fences of gang graffiti almost every week, and police there warned that it should be removed immediately, lest it become a forum for rival gangs to speak with one another. The longer you left it up, the greater the probability you could be in for more serious trouble.
The Honolulu officer I spoke with said we don't have the same gang violence as other large cities, and that many of the taggers tend to be frustrated artists who are looking for an outlet. He mentioned a downtown restaurant with a large mural that was commissioned to be painted by graffiti artists, probably as a way to keep from getting tagged over and over.
He wasn't defending the crimes. He was as disgusted with this mess as I am, but he urged the public take an active role, calling 911 when they see an act of graffiti taking place.
There's the obvious question: What happens to those caught spray-painting where they shouldn't? In her article two weeks ago, Eloise described the case of 19-year-old freeway tagger Webster Agudong, who pleaded guilty to defacing two highway signs last year. His punishment was four weekends in jail, 200 hours of community service and restitution of $5,211 to pay for replacing the signs. Tough punishment or a slap on the wrist? One online reader thought it was ludicrously lenient, but for a 19-year-old, it was bound to have an impact.
Eloise has written a follow-up piece today that gives an overview of the problem and seeks solutions. She spoke to legislators who might draft bills to deal with offenders, volunteers who organize teams to paint over graffiti, and others for their thoughts on what should be done. One of the more intriguing ideas is to provide a designated place or "canvas" for those who want to express their artistic (or criminal) intent. Some say it has led to fewer instances of tagging.
Our goal in publicizing this campaign is to get a number of suggestions on the table about how best to tackle the problem. I like the approach of the Waikele Community Association. Tired of spending a small fortune by hiring contractors to paint over graffiti in the residential community, they formed a volunteer team of residents who wipe out tagging the moment they spot it. The key is quick communication among the volunteers, who notify one another what areas they need to clean. When taggers know their markings are not going to stay very long, they move elsewhere.
As we continue to shine a spotlight on the problem, we hope you might help with your ideas, your story suggestions and perhaps your time as volunteers to help make Hawai'i a little more beautiful. I'm anxious to hear from you. Visit honoluluadvertiser.com and click on the "Community Conversation" headline under the "Graffiti" feature.