The inaugural edition of the Zero Graffiti International conference was held recently in San Francisco. For three days, more than 150 attendees from 52 cities convened in a conference facility in the basement of St. Mary’s Cathedral to discuss new enforcement technologies and successful abatement tactics, and to view the product lines of 13 exhibitors.


At this point, the ways in which graffiti has trespassed its way into the world of mainstream culture and high art are well-documented. Artists like San Francisco’s own Barry McGee get commissions from Vanity Fair and Cadillac to confer institutionally sanctioned street authenticity on prime urban real estate. Shepard Fairey merchandises dissent more doggedly than McDonald’s merchandises hamburgers. A few days before the Zero Graffiti conference took place, the National Park Service paid at least two people to repaint graffiti at Alcatraz Island that had originally been applied by Indian activists in 1969, when they were occupying the island in an effort to reclaim it from the federal government after it shut down the prison there.


What gets much less attention than the business of graffiti is the business of anti-graffiti. And yet it’s quite impressive in its own right. Most estimates put annual spending on graffiti abatement in the United States at $15 to $20 billion. Drew Lindner, chairman of Stop Urban Blight, the nonprofit group that organized the Zero Graffiti conference, put the total at $17 billion in 2009. On a more local basis, Mohammed Nuru, director of the San Francisco Department of Public Works, exclaimed in a speech at the conference that the city spends $20 million each year cleaning up unauthorized graffiti.


IF SOMEONE TAGS YOUR HOUSE OR BUSINESS YOU CAN BE FINED HUNDREDS OF DOLLARS.


Few $17 billion industries strive to get smaller. Thus, it should come as no surprise that Drew Lindner is not just the chairman of Stop Urban Blight but also the president of This Stuff Works, a company that manufactures a line of graffiti abatement products. Or that the conference’s speakers and attendees expressed the belief that the War on Graffiti is a battle requiring constant vigilance.


And who, really, would argue with this? As oppressive as a city with zero graffiti would undoubtedly be, imagine its opposite, a city with zero graffiti abatement. Picture every doorway defaced with the artless scrawls of talent-free 12-year-olds. Picture every humble warehouse wall uplifted with bubble hearts and giraffes.


While graffiti advocates present graffiti as a liberating force that allows individuals and communities to reclaim public space, graffiti has also given local governments a pretext to expand their coercive powers. In California, carrying a felt-tip marker can get you six months in jail if a prosecutor can prove you had “intent to commit vandalism or graffiti.” Parents of minors who commit graffiti are liable for up to $10,000 in damages. More and more cities are beginning to use graffiti tracking apps and databases, in an effort to tie multiple instances of graffiti to taggers and increase their potential fines and sentences.


But it’s not just taggers who bear the brunt of increasingly onerous surveillance and regulation. Ordinances that compel property owners to remove graffiti that appears on their property or face fines are now in effect in hundreds of cities. If someone tags your house or business and you don’t remove it in a specified amount of time after receiving a violation – sometimes as little as 48 hours – you can be fined hundreds of dollars. If you remove the graffiti and taggers hit you again, the process starts anew.


Now, every time a tagger scribbles his name on the back of a bus seat, he may be reclaiming a few inches of worn plastic for The People, but he’s also empowering the expanding apparatus of the state. 


GREG BEATO is a contributing editor to Reason.

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