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Autumn 1996
City Journal Autumn 1996.
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The Handwriting on the Wall
Matthew Robinson
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Norman Mailer probably doesn’t visit Albuquerque very often, but if he did, he would be disgusted by the city’s philistine view of graffiti. During the seventies, after all, Mailer couldn’t heap enough praise upon such spray-can scribble. The graffiti artist, or “tagger,” was a heroic rebel of the ghetto, acting against an oppressive society on “the power of his own belief” and creating works fit to hang alongside those of Raphael and Van Gogh. Albuquerque lacks such refined tastes. Mayor Martin Chavez calls graffiti “an attack on the community,” and since his election in 1993, he has made getting rid of it a top priority, with notable success.

Before Chavez took office, graffiti was “so rampant the city looked like Beirut,” according to one resident. Gangs used the wild, jagged scrawlings to mark off territory, to memorialize their dead, and to taunt their rivals. In areas where graffiti was especially dense, law-abiding citizens watched helplessly as real estate prices sank and businesses fled. For them, the message was clear: chaos rules here.

But things changed in 1993. Chavez organized a “Paint the Town Day,” and 7,500 volunteers, using more than 13,000 gallons of paint, blotted out Albuquerque’s graffiti. Neighbors banded together to adopt certain blocks and to report new outbreaks, and the city created a rapid-response clean-up team. “Our best weapon is getting to problem sites right away,” says Carm Sciarrotta, one of the team’s foremen. “Sometimes graffiti will pop up again 24 hours later. But eventually the taggers get tired.”

The city also attacked the problem at its source. Having found that criminal prosecution was no help—young offenders got slapped with misdemeanors and were back on the streets in no time—Albuquerque turned to the civil courts. Now the street artists get to foot the bill for their self-expression. “We had one kid who did $2,400 worth of damage throughout the city,” reports Tito Montoya, head of Albuquerque’s Graffiti Removal Services. “The court said he was liable for 50 percent of the clean-up costs. His mother came in, wrote a check for $1,200, and took the kid out by the ear. We’ve never had a problem with him again.”

The city planned to have its fourth “Paint the Town Day” this year, but it was canceled—for lack of graffiti. Somewhere Norman Mailer sighs.
 

 

 


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