Coca Cola has a well-deserved reputation for philanthropy, one that goes beyond the mere doling out of money and focuses on real community needs. It’s genuine, reflecting the words of your former jingle: “It’s the real thing!”
But you have two current initiatives, under the auspices of that program, which concern our organization and its members. The NoGraf Network is a 501(C)3 non-profit which, like Coca Cola is global. On 6 continents and in 19 countries we have members from such diverse callings as education, prosecution, law enforcement, neighborhood associations, and others. The common link of our members is their active involvement in combating what is, unfortunately, an American “export” and now a global problem: graffiti vandalism.
Our concerns are laid out in the enclosure. I apologize for its length, but we wanted to go beyond merely laying a complaint at your doorstep. We wanted to provide the context of that complaint.
When you have reviewed this issue, I would appreciate a response with your view of the matter.
Thanks for your time and consideration.
Graffiti, Art, and Societal Responsibility
“Graffiti is terrorism in an embryo stage”
The quote above was the observation of a homeowner in a San Francisco bedroom community in the mid-1990’s. Despite efforts to eliminate it, his community was devastated by wave after wave of graffiti vandalism. He was fed up. But was his use of the word “terrorism” appropriate?
Although graffiti pales in comparison to the horrific events and aftermath of September 11th, it shares some of the terrorism variables which came to critical mass on that fateful day. Graffiti is a growing and global problem, but unless it touches an individual, it is often ignored by society at large. It is practiced and perpetuated by a sub-culture which embraces a value system at odds with mainstream society. And within mainstream society, the subculture has secured cells of support, sometimes unknowingly giving testimony to the subculture’s legitimacy, including avant-garde art institutions, institutions of higher education, and corporate giants.
Graffiti vandals often defend their practice with the observation that “graffiti has been around since the beginning of time.” There is some truth in that statement. However, contemporary graffiti is a quantum jump from “Dick loves Jane” carved on a tree or “Kilroy was here” written on a wall. Contemporary graffiti differs from those relatively harmless, “distant cousins” in many respects, including (1) societal cost, (2) community perceptions, (3) global organization for the vandalism, and (4) impact on youth.
Contemporary graffiti, often called “hip hop” or “tagger” graffiti, started in the Philadelphia-New York area in the 1970’s and 1980’s. A spin-off of gang graffiti in the ghettoes, it gradually became a subculture whose vocabulary and beliefs were spread nation-wide by word of mouth and hip-hop magazines. By the mid-1980’s municipalities were spending more to clean up tagger graffiti than gang graffiti (today, tagger graffiti comprises between 90 and 95% of the nation’s graffiti vandalism; gang graffiti comprises a very small portion.). Also, the tagger vandals were increasingly members of the middle and upper-middle class of society.
At-risk youth, typically with low self-esteem, pursue tagger graffiti to achieve what the subculture calls “fame”. Entry-level apprentices, called “toys,” often assume criminal status before they even approach their first wall, because the subculture advocates “racking” paint (stealing it). They refer to their vandalism as “writing;” practitioners are called “writers.” Taggers use three general forms of graffiti, (1) a simple tag, (2) a “throw-up” (bubble writing), and (3) a “piece” (or masterpiece). A “toy” typically makes gradual progress from tags to “pieces” and his “fame” is a product of talent (practice makes perfect!) and the sheer number of tags. Extra credit is given for what is called a “heavens tag,” graffiti placed on a difficult-to-reach place, like a high building, a bridge, or a freeway sign. Also, for more visibility, taggers frequently go on “bombing” runs, where a maximum number of targets are hit in a neighborhood or region. Building on that term, one of the major forces on the streets of New York City in the 1980’s was a vandal who used the moniker “Bom5.” He worked with a crew of vandals known as “Most Wanted.” In a November 1995 interview for a magazine called “Neid” BOM5 said: “I started my own crew in 1978. ‘Most Wanted’ because what was originally ‘Mad Writers’. The younger members of my crew are keeping the name alive and strong. WAE One is the one who takes care of my crew when it comes to illegal stuff right now….” WAE One continues to do illegal graffiti on the streets of New York City today. And Bom5 today? A few years ago, he admitted, in an interview, that he still hits trucks and illegal walls, but stays away from the subways. More on BOM5 later!
By the early 1990’s tagger graffiti was an immense municipal problem in larger municipalities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. But an electronic accelerant was about to be added to those smoldering crucibles: the Internet.
The Internet, with its chat rooms, allowed taggers to share insights, viewpoints, and methods (including such topics as how to “rack” paint, how to avoid parental detection when you’re on the streets at night, recommendations on paint, aerosol tips, and markers, and stylistic considerations). The Internet allowed a loose, geographically separated confederation of vandals to coalesce into a subculture.
But more help was on the horizon. In 1994, for her graduate student project, Susan Farrell secured permission from Georgia Tech University to develop a web site which highlighted the emerging graffiti subculture. Farrell would ultimately be a leading advocate of passing off the subculture’s vandalism as “art”. Appropriately, she named her website “Art Crimes”.
Art Crimes provided three major benefits to the emerging graffiti subculture: (1) an international art gallery for graffiti pieces, (2) a place for dialogue amongst graffiti practitioners, and (3) an on-line store where graffiti supplies could be ordered. Art Crimes became more than a website; it emerged as a global network, with repeater sites in Europe, Canada, and across the United States. The site received many awards for website design, and the leaders of Georgia Tech University basked in this acclaim. But in 1997 the President of Georgia Tech, Dr. Wayne Clough, along with the Georgia Tech Alumni Association, became the targets of a nation-wide letter-writing campaign, critical of the University’s apparent lack of social responsibility. Reluctantly (reluctant, despite the fact that Farrell had graduated long ago), the University removed the website from its server in late December 1997. A few days later, the site was back on the air as a commercial site It remains at that URL today.
To this day, Art Crimes brags about being “the first graffiti site on the net”. After Art Crimes’ appearance, copycat sites started emerging around the world. By 1997 there were hundreds. Today there are thousands.
Art Crimes continues to balance its advocacy of graffiti art with an underwhelming statement of social responsibility, viz: “In many places, painting graffiti is illegal. We do not advocate breaking the law…” In the shadow of the September 11th tragedy, one can’t imagine an aviation school protecting itself from societal criticism with the statement “In many places, hijacking of commercial airliners and crashing them into buildings is illegal…..”! But the subterfuge seems to have worked for Farrell.
If Farrell and Georgia Tech and others who take the narrow “it’s art!” view of graffiti were to expand their view to include other societal considerations, what might these be? Certainly the list should include cost and impact on youth.
Cost. Municipal cost is difficult to assess, because of the number of jurisdictions involved, the lack of uniform record keeping, and the fact that many instances of graffiti vandalism simply go unreported. But it is estimated that the annual cost of graffiti in the United States is between $15 and $18 billion. That’s a property-damage cost, which does not include such “soft costs” as loss of commerce, tourism, and lowered property values. And the cost is growing, especially as vandals use a new tool and medium for their “art”: etching or scribing on windows. The most common tools are hobby etching acid or diamond-tipped drill bits. Because of the immense cost of replacing windows, the damage often goes unrepaired, reminding all that there is “disorder” in the community. That’s the psychological cost, because graffiti is viewed as a symbol of “disorder”. The dynamics of this variable have been well documented by Dr. George Kelling in his book Fixing Broken Windows and by Dr. Catherine E. Ross, Ohio State University. Residents of neighborhoods do not like graffiti, and they often rank it above drug problems as a crime they would like to see emphasized more by law enforcement. Byproducts of this unsettling impact of graffiti are fear, an adverse impact on tourism and commerce, and lowered property values.
Youth Impact. What about the impact on youth who become involved in graffiti vandalism? In addition to “fame”, how else might graffiti impact their lives?
Character. The subculture reinforces the belief that a citizen may select which laws are obeyed, and that it is OK to take actions that satisfy one’s own needs without consideration of the impact of those actions on victims. Some graffiti practitioners actually state that graffiti victims should be grateful to them, for the “art” which has been placed on their property. The following is a quote from one of Susan Farrell’s linked sites, reflecting a vandal’s retrospective view of a successful “etching” incident: “I LIVE FOR SCRIBING. THAT SHIT GETS ME GOING. HERES A LITTLE STORY. IT WAS LIKE 91 AND IM RIDIN THE 118 IN THE VALLEY. SK8 GETS ON THE BUS. I HAVE NO IDEA. HE TAPS ON THE BACK AND ASKS ME TO WATCH HIS BACK FOR A SEC. THEN THE KING DOES A SCRIBE PROD. ON THE WINDOW. DOES HIS PATENTED SK8-CBS THROW WITH SHADOWS AND A WAIST UP CHARACTER KIND OF LIKE THE ONE PRYER UTI DOES. THE HOLE THING FILLED HALF A WINDOW. AFTER HE FINISHED HE ASKED WHAT I WROTE THEN HE HIT IT UP THROW STYLE THANKED ME THEN GOT OFF THE BUS. SHIT JUST FUCKEN INSPIRED ME! IM LIKE 3 YEARS IN THE GAME AND THIS HAPPENS, I WAS ON A LIFE HIGH FOR AWHILE. PEACE.”
Criminal Record. Contemporary graffiti vandalism often falls within the felony range of crimes, resulting in practitioners having a felony criminal record at an early age. For example, Timothy Badalucco, California’s celebrated “Graffiti King” was sentenced, at the age of 19, to a fine of $100,000 and probation. Subsequently violating the terms of the probation, he was sentenced to 36 months in state prison. Christopher Peters, a high school senior from Milwaukee, was sentenced to 51 months in prison. There are many, many more!
Addiction. Many become addicted to the adrenalin rush which accompanies graffiti, and they simply cannot shake the habit. For example, a 30-year-old civil engineer in Philadelphia, driving a new BMW, was arrested for graffiti crimes and wound up spending 9 months in jail.
Death. Paul Gazo, a Milwaukee youth, fell to his death when attempting to do a “heavens” tag. So did Mario Pinto, falling from a bridge in Cincinnati. Many others have suffered similar fates. Other taggers have been shot and killed when they were mistaken for prowlers. A big price for scribbling on a wall for “fame!”
There is no doubt that many graffiti “pieces” reflect great talent on the part of their creators. But at what cost? Although no precise figure can be identified, the journey from “toy” to talented, street-art “piecer” is traveled at immense societal cost. For example, consider the following recent Internet posting from a practicing graffiti vandal: “its funny how you think you can stop graffiti....ive been painting for 6 years...i havent ever been caught....ive done 498 pieces...hahaha....you trying to stop it makes the game more fun....you dont kno y i paint...so just shut up and be glad im not dealing drugs like our corrupted us government....all the U.S. government is worse than us...so settle down and experience graffiti for what it is...ART!!!!!” (Poesia, Sep 6, 2002). One former tagger, now frequently sought as a “recognized street artist,” admits that, during his heyday, he did millions of dollars damage in his community, both directly and through the actions of those he mentored. Reports from other communities indicate that a seven-figure price tag for the journey from “toy” to “local artist” is not unusual. A lot of money? Why should the “artist” be concerned? It’s not his money!
Even within the subculture, there is disagreement about whether graffiti is “art”. Consider the following recent observations of one who was a lieutenant in the movement, back in the 1980’s: Graffiti “.. is not part of hip hop just because a couple of movies and glossy magazines claim that it is…Graff is the product of criminals and the criminal minded. If you don’t believe me let me drop a list of all the criminal activities an actor is engaged in when producing graffiti:
a. retail theft
b. criminal trespassing
d. resisting arrest
e. conspiracy (another generic charge but certainly valid and warranted when one considers all the pre-planning involved in producing a terroristic graffiti assault)”
Given the immense and growing cost of this criminal subculture, one would expect to see focused reaction by American institutions. One would expect to see anger. But such anger, and action based upon it, is often absent. It seems to reflect a recent observation by columnist John Leo, concerning the laissez-faire morality of our nation: “…a presumption that almost all behavior is beyond criticism, and that even destructive acts deserve understanding rather than judgment.” Was it this orientation that recently caused ambivalence by Columbia University on whether to buy an antiplagiarism system? Sandra Johnson, associate dean of student affairs, observed: “When students plagiarize, that usually means there’s something else wrong in their lives that needs dealing with.” And what about graffiti vandalism? When youth vandalize, should we be searching for something else that’s wrong in their lives, or should we be teaching them that decisions have consequences? If the latter, is that lesson taught when we elevate them to celebrity status as “renowned street artists?”
The reaction of many presumably responsible American institutions has not only been non-judgmental; in many cases their actions reflect an apparent desire to join and ally themselves with the criminal subculture. Examples:
Sprite, a Coca Cola subsidiary, is sponsoring a national program to highlight street art. Details are at their web site: The program features events in many major American cities. . For example, Sprite advertises that in December, in New York City, “Local graffiti artists will show off their best work at this exclusive Sprite.com VIP Card event….” . But are cities where millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent to combat graffiti appropriate settings for showcasing “local graffiti artists,” particularly with the prestige of Coca Cola and Sprite offered in support? Should “local graffiti artists” be presented as artistic heroes with no history of crime, with no responsibility for remorse or retribution?
A second program sponsored by Coca Cola is the “Youth Partnership Program,” part of which is an “Art of Harmony” art competition in Baltimore, Boston, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Washington D.C. Working in collaboration with high school art teachers, students and teachers are eligible to win significant prizes. The community is involved through “judging panels comprised of distinguished local artists, community, business and civic leaders; art educators; media personalities; and Coca-Cola representatives.” The entire program would seem to be in step with a tenet of the Coca Cola Foundation: “to improve the quality of life in the community and enhance individual opportunity through education.”
But in contemporary America, one of the most-frequently identified detractors of community quality of life is widespread graffiti, vandalism whose true impact is softened by the euphemism “street art”. Most of the cities where Coca Cola is sponsoring this contest are spending millions of taxpayer dollars per year to try to cope with this senseless crime and to try to prevent their youth from joining the ranks of the criminals. For example, the Los Angeles basin (City of Los Angeles and Los Angeles County) spends $60 million per year!
But the culmination of Coca Cola’s Art of Harmony Program would seem to put the Program in conflict with those efforts: “…the Art of Harmony commissions locally renowned street artists in each city to transform the winning works into vast eye-catching murals. Besides sprucing up the city with color and inspiration, the murals serve as a constant reminder of the artistic talent that abounds in the local high schools. Such nationally recognized artists as Man One (Los Angeles), Bomfive (New York) and Roger Gastman (Washington, D.C.) are among those who have lent their considerable talents to re-creating the artwork into murals.”
“Locally renowned street artists?!” Renowned by whom? Renowned by local law enforcement agencies? Renowned by graffiti “toys” and at-risk youth? To orchestrate these local efforts, Coca Cola uses such “nationally recognized artists” as Bomfive, Roger Gasman, and Man One.
It’s not clear whether Bom5, the graffiti tagger who vandalized New York’s streets for decades, is the same person as Coca Cola’s “Bomfive”. Certainly the following are reasonable questions: (1) is this the same person? (2) if not, what is the basis of Bomfive’s national recognition as an artist? (3) If so, why is Coca Cola using a former vandal as one who will “lend his considerable” talent to high school art students? What message is sent to our youth, if one can do decades of criminal vandalism, emerge blameless as a seller of hip clothing, then be spotlighted as a national expert by a corporate giant like Coca Cola? If Bomfive is not Bom5, what was his basis of choosing a name which emulates a local vandal and tends to pay tribute to the subculture’s area-oriented vandalism called “bombing?”
Roger Gastman? In his 2001 book Gastman presents the vandalism of D.C. taggers, including CERT, JOKER, ETCH and NAA, as a basis of celebration and as forms of meaningful artwork and self-expression. But how would local D.C. law enforcement agencies size up the work of these vandals?
Man One? The very first link at his web site is to Susan Farrell’s Art Crimes website. That’s not intended to be critical of a person who is obviously and passionately devoted to art. But it suggests an alignment of mindset in a contemporary world divided between those who view graffiti as crime and detractor from quality-of-life and those who view it as “art.”
In the aftermath of the September 11th tragedy it came to light that some Middle Eastern countries were supporting both the United States and terrorists. Is such behavior also appropriate in America for prestigious academic institutions and corporate giants in the case of graffiti vandalism? When the stakes are our own youth and our quality of life, isn’t it essential that our actions and our words are unambiguous? Isn’t it possible to have reasoned dialogue on this issue, dialogue which places the welfare of our youth as the paramount consideration? Can’t we stop expending countervailing efforts and money on this important issue? Those are difficult questions, ones that are more easily asked than answered!
In a recent interview ABC-TV’s Peter Jennings, a Canadian citizen, made the following observation about America: “Living in freedom is hard work….I know of no other people who act with better motives, though that doesn’t mean we always do the best…” For the important issue of graffiti vandalism, with its immense societal cost, there are many acting with different motives. But isn’t it time, to borrow a term from Coca Cola’s current campaign, that we act in “harmony” on this important issue?