Monday, October 29, 2012

Graffiti Affects Urban Life

Public Dissent

Does anyone have a right to deface a building with a message?; graffiti artists think so, and often do so without much consequences. It's often hard to apprehend such individuals, and police likely consider it a low-priority crime. But there is a connection between graffiti and how safe a city appears. Prof George Jochnowitz writes about his city, New York, in a piece that is a few years old, but his argument can equally apply today to any major city, including my own, Montreal: "If we love the freedom, safety and variety that characterize urban life, we must control graffiti. Mayor Giuliani and his first police commissioner, William Bratton, led a war against crime, including quality-of-life crime. Crime was reduced by 50% during the years 1994-96. Graffiti did not disappear, but they became much less common."

  by George Jochnowitz

Graffiti writers are cultural imperialists. Their message is always the same: I live in a slum and so do you. Graffiti writers are trying to do away with the variety of urban life and replace it with their own harsh culture.

People flock to New York, not simply to escape the inconvenience and expense of commuting, but to enjoy the public space. Great cities are not merely places to work, but to stroll, shop, eat, admire the architecture and enjoy the presence of others. New York's ethnic variety adds a distinctive spice to the flavor of the city's many public spaces. Apartments, private spaces, are expensive, but public space is free. Public space has one major enemy: fear of crime. Fear of crime not only inhibits people from going out, thus making the streets lonely and consequently even more dangerous, but leads to the installation of car burglar alarms, which go off for no reason at any hour of the day or night. These ear-shattering, nerve-shattering, soul-shattering alarms serve no purpose, since they are so familiar that they do not attract attention. City and state governments lack the common sense to outlaw them, and insurance companies actually encourage their use.

On July 21, 1971, the New York Times ran a story entitled "Taki 183 Spawns Pen Pals." Taki 183 was the tag, or pen-name, of a young vandal who wrote all over walls and subways stations. Almost immediately after the publication of the story, graffiti appeared everywhere in the city, especially in the subways. They spread all over the world—global graffiti. Graffiti, to be sure, have always existed. There were graffiti on the walls of the houses in Pompeii, a fact we know because they were preserved when the city was covered with lava and ashes by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the year 79. But the vandalism that started in 1971 was different. It was recreational crime, destruction for the fun of it.

If we love the freedom, safety and variety that characterize urban life, we must control graffiti. Mayor Giuliani and his first police commissioner, William Bratton, led a war against crime, including quality-of-life crime. Crime was reduced by 50% during the years 1994-96. Graffiti did not disappear, but they became much less common. Today, unfortunately, they seem to be coming back.

An article by Rob Walker in the October 3, 2004, issue of The New York Times magazine tells us about “a global community, linking the form’s biggest icons with the newest up-and-comers, from the Lower East Side to Latvia.” The current graffiti writers are upper-class, as opposed to the under-class kids of the 1970s. Whatever their class, however, graffiti are acts of vandalism. Attacks on public space cause crime. Favorable publicity rewards the perpetrators of these attacks. Once again, the New York Times is serving as a tool for vandals, as it did in the days of Taki 183.

Graffiti, which are illegal, have a legal ally in car alarms. We have to consider the possibility that these alarms actually cause crime. What is a car telling us when its alarm goes off again and again? It is saying, "Nobody cares." It is saying, "Steal me. Nobody will stop you."

New York City has the lowest crime rate of the ten largest cities in the United States. When crime began to go down nation-wide, New York's drop was the first and the greatest. The reason, almost certainly, was that New York was acting to prevent quality-of-life offenses like graffiti.

Car alarms and graffiti both reflect and create an atmosphere of lawlessness. Graffiti are evidence that a crime has been committed. Car alarms are supposed to be evidence that a crime is being committed. We ignore the alarms because we know the evidence is false; even so, alarms are an attack on public space.

Mayor Bloomberg has suggested laws against various types of noise. Mysteriously, banning car alarms is not listed among his proposals, even though there are more complaints about car alarms than about any other source of noise. There is a mayoral election scheduled for 2005. If Mayor Bloomberg wants New Yorkers to appreciate him, he should speak and act against this form of noise, which is not only annoying but also pointless.

A city that feels safe becomes safer as a result. People are not afraid to go out; their very presence then protects others. New York became the nation's safest big city because Mayor Giuliani made people believe they had little to fear on the streets. The return of graffiti and the persistence of car alarms are not a good omen.

George Jochnowitz was born in New York City, in 1937.  He became aware of different regional pronunciations when he was six, and he could consciously switch accents as a child. He got his Ph.D. in linguistics from Columbia University and taught linguistics at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.  His area of specialization was Jewish languages, in particular, Judeo-Italian dialects.  As part of a faculty-exchange agreement with Hebei University in Baoding, China, he was in China during the Tiananmen Massacre. He can be reached at

Copyright ©2012. George Jochnowitz. All Rights Reserved.


  1. Hi Perry,
    Graffiti, or 'tag', in the inner city often marks gang-related territorial affiliation. Rather than 'recreational crime', tag can be all about gang-related activity and illicit business.
    Tag is as natural to the concrete jungle as marking territory with urine is to our pets, the beasts of the forest, jungle, or Savannah.
    The ‘return’ of graffiti, as Professor Jochnowitz puts it, is merely the undiminished brutality of the inner city raising it’s (true) colors. I would say inner city life affects graffiti, and the quality of inner city life is reflected in the graffiti.
    It is as though the ‘harshness’ of urban existence is evidenced symptomatically, in the tag. Symptoms come and go. Symptoms can even disappear for a time, as can our fears for urban safety. Control graffiti, control the symptom. Result: short term symptom relief.
    But the underlying ills of the inner city have never really been alleviated, have they?

    1. You are right on the mark; you can alleviate the symptoms through law-enforcement and legal means (fines), but that does not address the root causes that you rightly pointed out. It's then easier to ignore what's happening in the inner city, and also blame poverty on the poor.


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