Broken Windows, pt. 1

Rogan Furguson of The Great Whatsit provides a nice introduction to the Broken-Window Theory, and I couldn’t pass up making a few comments.

The Broken-Window theory comes from a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by George Kelling and James Wilson—conveniently titled “Broken Windows“—and is commonly used to initiate or toughen legal penalties for graffiti writing, loitering, and littering, as well as giving rise to the interesting practice of ordering building owners to buff and fining people for noncompliance.

Rogan’s post (the fourth in a series of posts about his move to Los Angeles and making a life for his family there) encapsulates a wide variety of stances and positions on graffiti and offers a point of entry into some important issues.

When he first moved to the neighborhood, “. . . gangsters were using the structure as a brothel and a place to ingest drugs, and they advertised their presence in green and black spray paint on the exterior walls.”

He continues:

In our first week in the house, a local gangster sprayed our concrete boundary wall with the initials “H.T.H.C.,” which stands for Hard Time Hustler Crips. The next morning we called in a police officer to come look at the handiwork. The officer assured us that it was common gang graffiti, and that there was no indication that we had been singled out for abuse. This was a huge relief. I bought a can of thick paint from the Home Depot and covered over the writing. It took a couple of coats, and it was only after I was able to see what the graffiti looked like under a layer of paint that I realized the thin dingy white on the rest of the house was covering up huge graffiti block letters. I had to stand back to make out the letters behind the veil of paint– H.T.H.C., four feet tall, running across the front wall, with another H.T.H.C running across the upper part of the house, just above the window. Our home had been a billboard.

Graffiti alone doesn’t make me nervous. I can easily cover it up, at no significant cost, and eventually the taggers will look for easier targets (we haven’t had graffiti since that first time). The problem is when I’m not home to clean it up. I worry that if the graffiti were to linger, the neighborhood gangs would realize that no one was home to protect the castle. . . .

First, some neighborhood gangster would tag the house. Two days later, another tagging. Then the gangster would bring a friend, and they would figure out that no one was home, so they would hop the fence and rummage around my shed. They would steal the bikes. When nothing happened the next day, they would grow more brazen. . . .

Rogan’s fears—that tags would lead to ever more wonton acts—show a familiarity with Kelling and Wilson’s theory, and perfectly illustrate (and perhaps prove) their thesis, but there are other interesting things happening.

First, there is an implicit confabulation of gang-related and other sorts of graffiti. Gangs use graffiti as a sort of direct marketing tool: in Rogan’s words “Our home had been a billboard.” Gang tags advertise and warn about the various sorts of activities that take place in an area to fellow gang members, rival gangs, community members, visitors and passers-by.

Other sorts of graffiti have a similar, advertising-related purpose, but the writer is usually the object being advertised, rather than, say, drugs, and graffiti is generally more of a decoration than a threat or warning.

Second, most graffiti looks quite different than gang graffiti. Where writers take pride in their facility with various styles and letterforms, gang writers are more interested in advertising the gang and its activities.

Gangs have specific styles, to be sure, and gang graffiti (specifically Cholo writing) has a long history. However, gang styles are fairly static: stylistic advancement is not particularly prized and gangs intend that everyone be able to clearly read the products and activities on offer, the warnings and exhortations, and to clearly demarcate territories.

Graffiti, on the other hand, is meant to spread: the writer’s objective is to ‘get up,’ to see their name on every bus, or on every freight train car, or on every block. This sort of graffiti is meant first for the writer, and second for friends and rivals. Passersby are a secondary concern.

This misunderstanding is understandable and pervasive and can be seen in people from a variety of backgrounds and socio-economic groups. Tags look relevantly similar to gang writing, and indicate—as the Broken Window theory claims—a blight on the area in the minds of many.

I’m looking for a new way of describing graffiti, a new term perhaps that clearly separates out gang graf in the same way that Latrinalia separates the writing on bathroom walls from tagging and other forms of graffiti.

Until then, thanks to Rogan and The Great Whatsit for providing a jumping-off point to this discussion. I’ll return to this topic at a later date, and hopefully have some more interesting things to say.

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