28 February 2007

Flogging, Ritual Amputation, Or A Good Old-Fashioned Stretch In The Pen?

I found myself quietly cheering as I read this article about a serial graffiti tagger being sent to jail. Then of course I felt slightly guilty, since the whole thrust of the article was a variation on the whole "Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?" theme pioneered by William Rees-Mogg in response to two members of the Rolling Stones being sentenced to prison for drugs in 1967 (the ensuing hue and cry resulted in the Stones being set free to take lots more drugs with relative impunity).

Do graffiti artists (or vandals, take your pick) belong in jail? The author of this article thinks not, and makes repeated appeals to sentiment, citing the offender's drug and alcohol problems (which apparently made him, in a blackout and/or stupour, pick up the spray can again even though he was on probation for previous offences and had been warned that getting caught again meant prison time), the relatively minor nature of the offence (true of an individual instance of graffiti, but what about when someone does thousands of tags, at a cost to the city and/or property owners of $100,000 or more?), the alleged fact that the more the cops crack down on graffiti, the more prevalent it becomes, and the notion that this particular miscreant is simply a misunderstood "would-be Basquiat."

Bringing in the Basquiat factor is certainly not a way to win my sympathy: I thought Basquiat's paintings (and I'm being generous with the term "painting") were ugly as sin, and the guy himself, if his biopic is to be believed, comes across as a lead-plated asshole. Be that it may, some people obviously had a high regard for Basquiat, who was essentially a glorified graffiti artist (vandal, take your pick), and the fact that some graffiti writers actually do end up as successful artists is one of the most prevalent arguments in favour of leaving them alone.

But what about the 95% or more of graffiti taggers who are clearly not artists by any conventional definition of the word, who are apparently motivated by little more than the desire to see their tag (or that of their gang) splashed all over town? Having lived in several heavily graffitied areas (most notably London and New York), I've gotten throroughly sick of the stuff, not to mention the people who do it. Still, it's worth asking: isn't it overkill to send someone to prison for an act of vandalism, especially when prisons are overflowing with more serious violent criminals?

As an abstract principle, yes. Public flogging, or, for you fans of sharia law, ritual amputation, would probably be far cheaper and more effective graffiti prevention measures. But assuming that's not going to happen (the implementation of sharia law, I mean) for at least a few more years, what can or should you do with graffiti-sraying assholes who show no inclination to stop, no matter how many times they're caught? Put them on probation once again and tell them, "This time we really mean it"?

The trouble is that no "community punishment" like probation or public service works unless there's something meaner and tougher to back it up. And short of the aforementioned flogging and amputation, what else is there besides locking someone up to reinforce the, "If you do that again, you'll be sorry" message that juvenile court judges and frustrated parents have been peddling since the dawn of time?

I guess the only other alternative is to declare cities free-fire zones (I mean for spray cans, that is) and let the graffiti writers have at it. I know some people see a certain beauty in a heavily graffitied cityscape, though it's always managed to elude me. And before you ask, yes, I probably have done some graffiti myself at some point or other in my many-chequered criminal career, but I can't remember any specific instances at the moment. And if you still think jail is too harsh for a graffiti tagger, bear in mind that you're talking to one of the only people in history who managed to get tossed in the slammer for littering.

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