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Guest Commentary

Money spent painting over graffiti would be better spent reaching out to the alienated

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Why are we Tucsonans so steamed up about graffiti that we are willing to spend more than a quarter-million dollars a year for "nonprofit" efforts to eradicate it? Why, in an age when definitions of art wander so freely, are we on a rampage, assuming that a scrawl that looks like Arabic or Chinese calligraphy can be nothing but a precursor to burglary?

Some respected paintings are little but votive offerings to chaos. Yet, wherever we spot productions of graffiti artists, faceless and fleeting, we respond with anger that we could more creatively refocus. True, some graffiti, probably a small percentage, may be gang-related and therefore needs serious attention, but hysteria is unlikely to tame gangs or bring them into negotiations. Whether with guns or paint, graffiti kids are crying out for help, though it is easier to deny that truth than face it.

I treasure the scrawls my late son left when he was a creator of crayon graffiti. With color crayons, art is born. With chalk, intellect is advanced and enhanced. Grant Wood credited his mother for encouraging his painting ambitions, because she saved drawings he scrawled as a child.

Her message was the opposite of our hostility toward an unseen population expressing, no matter how foolishly, their talents, rebelliousness and rage at a society that seems to offer them nothing. By painting over their work (or play) that sometimes competes with art seen in museums, we reinforce the us-versus-them mentality, further alienating the already alienated. And please tell me what public official is qualified to make valid aesthetic judgments.

We can pour money, badly needed for other priorities, into defeating these unconventional artists, but the problem is greatly overstated, unless members of the City Council have noticed far more graffiti than I have been able to find. Many trash bins are defaced, but how many trash bins can be purchased or repainted for a quarter-million dollars? I'd like to know how much is budgeted per graffito if this is such a necessary service. As for banning spray paint, there is more of a justification for doing so for environmental reasons than to prevent graffiti.

Funds for the graffiti-abatement program could be reallocated for creative programs to invite the "offenders" into dialogue. If promised amnesty from prosecution and invited to participate in discussions aimed at mutual understanding, we might find a way to address these issues, trying for win-win scripts, not win-lose or lose-lose. In undertaking this project, we could enlist the help of Alternatives to Violence Project experts.

The goal would be to bridge the us-versus-them polarity and get us talking about how the community could empower ambitions now being perverted, and how we could join forces to find dignity in making a better community. Writer/social critic Paul Goodman had a term for that: Communitas.

Our mayor and City Council speak of reducing crime rates, but efforts are futile so long as we treat those who are at risk of becoming criminals as if they already are. Some see a gentler approach as coddling vandals, but it is possible that these young people would become self-policing if they thought efforts to hear and empower them were sincere. If we offered respect, dignity and a role in finding solutions, we might be pleasantly surprised.

Money spent on painting over this unconventional art could instead encourage talent. We could provide space, mentoring and perhaps scholarships for creative activities. But with an us-versus-them mentality, we can be sure that these scorned citizens will easily overcome our punitive efforts.

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