Art Crime: Graffiti Wars


Photo by of Alan Ket by Xolo Maridueña, courtesy

Law enforcement agencies, judges and politicians around the country are stepping up their battle against graffiti artists. But the crackdown may only have emboldened them.

In March 2009, a man identified by Pittsburgh Police as “HERT,” the city's second most-wanted graffiti artist, entered the Allegheny County Courthouse for an appearance stemming from a prior arrest.

But when he arrived, he was informed that police also had warrants for his arrest on 69 misdemeanors and four felony counts of criminal mischief based on estimated damages from vandalism caused by the 22-year-old's alleged activities of spray-painting his tag on public and private buildings, railroad properties, and nearly a dozen neighborhoods in and around Pittsburgh's downtown corridor. HERT was then handcuffed and escorted from the courtroom.

TV cameras were there to capture the moment, and Detective Daniel Sullivan of Pittsburgh Police Bureau's Graffiti Task Force, made sure the media knew the significance of the arrest.

“He was the number-two tagger in the city, hitting more than 100 pieces of property, and that doesn’t include outside boroughs,” Sullivan told reporters, adding that HERT had caused an estimated $212,000 in damages to private and public property during his graffiti career.

The case of HERT, who is still awaiting trial, illustrates what some observers believe is an increasing crackdown on graffiti across the country. While, nationwide statistics on graffiti crime do not exist, the reallocation of police department budgets and resources suggests that cities are increasingly using prosecutions as a weapon to end the practice. For example, Graffiti Tracker, an Omaha, Nebraska-based company, which investigates graffiti crimes under contract with law enforcement agencies or sells them analysis software, is doing a thriving business. According to Timothy Kephart, Graffiti Tracker's CEO, the company has over $1 million in contracts with police departments in 45 cities, towns and municipalities.

And more cities like Pittsburgh have created “vandal squads” dedicated to capturing high-profile graffiti artists, similar to the force New York City instituted decades ago.

But the subtext of this battle is cultural.

Street Art

Graffiti artists and their defenders claim that what they do is not just art, but the manifestation of a rich, decades-old street culture. To opponents of course, it is simply vandalism, punishable by an escalating level of fines, jail time or community service. The fines can vary, depending on whether it is prosecuted as a misdemeanor or felony–which in turns depends on where the case is being tried. In Pittsburgh, for example, damages exceeding $5,000 are considered a felony, while in New York, only damages less than $1,500 are prosecuted as misdemeanors.

The wide variations in punishment, as well as the different methods used to calculate damages and collect evidence may be one reason that consistent statistics are hard to come by. Yet one thing appears certain: graffiti artists are not only unfazed by the forces arrayed against them; they seem to be energized.

“By our measures, (including) input from local and out-of-state police departments, graffiti crime is increasing at a significant rate,” admits Det. Sullivan, who says that enforcement has been complicated by the commercialization of the graffiti subculture and arguments that graffiti is a legitimate part of popular culture.

“So many different types of people are involved in the world of graffiti,” says Stacey Richman, a New York-based lawyer who has represented countless graffiti artists, such as members of the TATS CRU, a group of Bronx (NY)-based artists who style themselves as “professional muralists who work in aerosol” and even have their own web site. “It is a very complex community, and historically graffiti serves a very important communicative message amongst people.”

According to Richman, graffiti has often kept neighborhood youth away from drugs and gangs and focused, instead, on creativity. “It's a positive outlet as compared to other options in the street for young people,” she says.

Victimless Crime?

Taggers are often quick to claim, in their defense, that graffiti is a victimless crime. But Lester G. Nauhaus, a judge in Pittsburgh's Allegheny County known for being tough on graffiti, disagrees strongly. “There are always victims,” he argues. “The victims in these situations own the property.”

Nevertheless, the argument that property owners are victims remains a contentious one in graffiti culture, primarily because it sets up what many view as a direct confrontation between the haves and have-nots in society.

“Wealthy building owners think that having something on the wall hurts their property values and makes people fearful,” says Manhattan graffiti artist Alain Maridueña, who uses the tag KET. “(But) young people think that writing on the wall is a form of expression; it's artistic, and it's beautiful.”

Opponents are equally determined to put a stop to what they consider a threat to the quality of life in their communities. “Graffiti really cuts at the soul of a neighborhood,” says Jenny Skrinjar, president of Lawrenceville United, a Pittsburgh-based community group. “A neighborhood can’t tolerate the trash and uncaring appeal that [graffiti] brings.”

Whatever the merits of the conflicting arguments, graffiti artists are well aware that, once they are caught, they face a mounting sea of legal troubles. In 2006, a Special Investigations Unit of the New York Police Department searched Maridueña's home. Police seized documents, computers, art supplies, and even historical photos that he was keeping for an upcoming book on the history of New York City’s graffiti movement.

He pled guilty to the felony charges against him to avoid a prison sentence. As a father, he didn't want to lose any time with his children. He has over a year left on his court-ordered probation and will soon finish paying his restitution. Most damaging of all, however: he is now a convicted felon.

“It's a money game,” charges Maridueña. “They wear you down until you run out of money. And then you got to take a shitty deal and do prison time or get a permanent record. And then you become a criminal by their standards, and they can immediately toss you in jail if you ever get out of line.”

Hardening Stance

Recent convictions nationwide have shown a hardening of the criminal justice system's stance against graffiti artists. In December, Corpus Christi (Texas) Judge Marisela Saldaña sentenced 18-year-old Sebastian Perez to eight years in prison on three counts of graffiti and one count of marijuana possession, giving Perez the maximum two-year sentence for each charge. Under Texas law, both crimes are felonies. But due to a new state law prohibiting judges to “stack” consecutive sentences, Perez’ sentence was reduced to two years.

Danielle Bremner, aka UTAH, has been arrested and sentenced multiple times in the past two years. In April 2009, Bremner was sentenced to six months at New York's Rikers Island facility and ordered to pay $10,000 in restitution to the city's Metropolitan Transit Authority. After her release from Rikers, she served another six months in a Boston prison for similar offenses and was released in January.

The most notable case in recent years, however, is the July 2008 conviction of Daniel Montano (aka MF ONE), the graffitist sentenced to 2 ½ to 5 years in a Pennsylvania state penitentiary. The Pittsburgh Police Bureau's Graffiti Task Force estimated Montano caused over $700,000 in damages to private and public property. And when Montano is released from prison, he will owe $234,000 in restitution and be expected to fulfill 2,500 hours of community service.

But not everyone believes prison sentences are the answer to this problem.

“Locking up graffiti writers costs taxpayer money and doesn’t remove the graffiti that bothered people to begin with,” says Caleb Neelon, co-author of the forthcoming book A History of American Graffiti (HarperCollins). “The sensation of vengeance may feel good to some, but it’s an expensive rush.”

Neelon raises an important point. Property damage caused by graffiti writers is often overshadowed by the cost of incarceration.

However, Pittsburgh Judge Nauhaus argues that the cost is defensible when dealing with repeat offenders. “Having a vandal perform community service is just punishment for the first or second offense,” says Nauhaus. “But when he says 'screw you' to society, I (have) no sympathy. We live in a structured society. And if somebody doesn't want to be part of the structured society, you take them out.”

For graffiti artists across the country, and their defenders, that doesn't sound encouraging.

“People fail to realize that the person [they read about] in the paper is an individual and cannot be held responsible for all the graffiti in the city,” says a graffiti artist from a major metropolitan area who spoke with TCR on condition that his name not be used, citing the landslide of public outrage that often follows the arrest of a prolific tagger. “It's not jail that worries me, it's being convicted of a felony and having that limit my future, especially for something as insignificant as applying paint to walls without permission.”

Matthew Newton is an independent journalist. He is a regular guest columnist for the Applied Research Center's RaceWire blog and a contributing editor at True/, where he writes the column Annals of Americus.

Photo by of Alan Ket by Xolo Maridueña, courtesy

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