January 05, 2006,
"More from MSN," promises a headline on Hotmail's website. Just below "Celeb winners & losers of 2005" and "TV's best bets," Microsoft's e-mail service invites readers to "Rate these graffiti artists."
After clicking through that link, a typically threatening hip-hop beat pours forth, followed by graffiti-style lettering that says "Refreshing Wall" beneath a logo for Sprite.
"Check out Graff Gallery," one section urges. "See what's hot and what's not," pants another. Elsewhere: "Create fresh graff. Grab your paint and express yourself. Your mural awaits."
Click further, and there are examples of a disfigured garbage Dumpster and the dried wall of a rooftop swimming pool, both covered with "graff." (Presumably, "graffiti" is too complex a word for today's intellectually challenged youngsters. Thus: "graff.")
MSN subscribers are invited to vote on their favorite virtual graffiti from a gallery that has been created online for this website. At this writing, at least 5,533 readers have judged various "graff" on a scale from one to five. They have done so, not with stars, as usually pertain to movies and restaurants, but with spray cans.
Ooooooh. It's so cool. It's so now. It's so... REAL!"
Here is how real graffiti looks:
One or more vandals defaced this building on Fourth Avenue in Manhattan's East Village. (Vandals? Yes, vandals not graffiti "artists," as MSN and so many others call them.) To do this, they used ladders, climbed atop the awnings of these small businesses, or dangled from ropes thrown over the roof of this two-story building. In any case, they went far out of their way to mar a lovely old structure. Its owner McSam Hotel, LLC of Floral Park, New York for its part, has done nothing whatsoever to clean up this mess, despite my repeated requests. (I live nearby and have had to stare at this filth daily since early August).
While this damage obviously is not McSam's fault, removing it is McSam's responsibility; just as raking someone else's litter off your lawn unfortunately is up to you, not the misanthrope who dropped it. The criminal who did this has uglified a nice neighborhood, inspired other graffiti hoodlums to paint up my apartment building and others in the vicinity, and instantly imposed costs on any real-estate owner who erases this garbage. Paint and painters are not free.
Amid all this, here comes Sprite, a division of the Coca-Cola Company, along with MSN, a unit of Microsoft, to celebrate graffiti.
How far from the caves we have crawled.
To be fair, Hotmail's website includes the following fine print: "MSN encourages responsible self expression graffiti in the real world is not cool, so spray it on The Refreshing Wall, not in your 'hood." That's nice, but it rings about as true as the tobacco companies' claims that their ads are designed not to recruit tomorrow's smokers, but to encourage brand switching among today's nicotine addicts. In any case, Sprite didn't bother to sign on to MSN's flimsy disclaimer.
Sprite's and MSN's corporate irresponsibility is almost enough to make one embrace Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman's modest proposal for those who have covered his city's freeways with graffiti: "I'm saying maybe you put them on TV and cut off a thumb," he suggested last November. "That may be the right thing to do."
Mayor Goodman's idea is tempting. But, in the end, it is a bit too Taliban for the good old USA. Nevertheless, Goodman points (with his index finger, not his thumb) to a serious question: How do we stop this nasty urban menace?
Some of New York City's crime-fighting techniques suggest several anti-graffiti strategies.
Since October 2004, New York City has bolstered its efforts to arrest graffiti vandals. This should remain a key police priority. Graffiti is a lower-level offense that emboldens other criminals and leaves law-abiding citizens feeling menaced and insecure. Call it a gateway crime.
The NYPD's "Comp Stat" system allows top police officials to track specific crimes (murder, rape, robbery, auto thefts, etc.) on a block-by-block basis. Color-coded dots represent specific crime scenes on a giant computer screen corresponding to each precinct. NYPD brass and precinct commanders then deploy cops to the areas the dots represent. This common-sense tool launched under former GOP mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has been instrumental in the 69.08 percent drop in overall crime between ex-mayor David Dinkins's December 31, 1993, departure and December 31, 2005, the last day of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's first term.
Graffiti should be included among the crimes tracked by New York's Comp Stat program and similar systems at U.S. police departments. Top cops should reward precinct commanders who drive graffiti out of their jurisdictions. Laggards should be required to improve their officers' performance in this area.
Mayor Bloomberg and his counterparts around the nation should pressure prosecutors to punish graffiti perpetrators rather than laugh them off as young hipsters or "at-risk youths."
A while back, I went for a ride with the chief of the Ninth Precinct. He drove me around in a sleek, black, undercover sedan with obsidian windows as I directed him to the sites of several egregious graffiti attacks in my neighborhood. He told me his officers had arrested a young punk whose "tag" was "Krum." He said they found 29 cans of spray paint in Krum's backpack. They apprehended him, but the Manhattan District Attorney's office didn't bother to prosecute this punk. So, Krum was set free to continue his own, personal, urban redesign program.
Locking up Krum and crew would teach them some manners.
We dramatically should boost the penalties for first and repeat offenders, to wit: First-time convicts should spend 60 days in municipal custody, consisting of 30 days behind bars plus 30 days wearing broad-striped jailbird uniforms in supervised teams of a half dozen or so. Once so identified, they would spend all day on the streets cleaning graffiti in public, preferably in their own neighborhoods. Repeat offenders should see these penalties double with each additional conviction.
Would this reduce these poor babies' self-esteem? You bet!
That's the point.
Once graffiti is no longer applauded as an integral part of America's corrosive hip-hop "culture," graffiti pests will watch their self-esteem shatter as their neighbors and peers see them with brushes and pails of cleaning solution reversing the damage that they and their destructive cohorts have inflicted on decent society.
As soon as graffiti vandalism triggers humiliating and embarrassing consequences, and no longer is just another aspect of "thug life," these bums will have to find something else to do with their copious free time. Americans, then, will be able to enjoy cleaner, safer cities.
Meanwhile, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, and other companies could do their part by shutting down this obnoxious website and similar advertising and communications efforts that heap glory on an activity that is both hideous and against the law.
Deroy Murdock is a New York-based syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a senior fellow with the Atlas Economic Research Foundation in Arlington, Virginia.