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We tolerate graffiti at our peril


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Updated: July 20, 2012 6:23AM

Graffiti kills.

Not directly. Nobody looks at a gang sign on a garage and falls over dead. Though murderous thoughts might well up in the heart of the shocked garage owner who has to stop what he’s doing and go get the paint and the turpentine and spend hours wiping out what took seconds to do.

But graffiti creates an environment that gets people killed. Graffiti is gang advertisement, all too frequently. It says, “We own this” and is part of the unfettered criminal atmosphere that leads to the increased shootings and murders we’ve seen this past spring. Paint is sprayed, then bullets.

New York’s vaunted “broken windows” theory says that if you fix the small stuff — the squeegee shakedown men, the aggressive panhandlers, the painted over subway cars — and fix those broken windows, you’ll help prevent the bigger crimes.

And Chicago has been letting the small stuff go, and now we’re reaping the results.

There’s a connection between ill-advised, false economy of city cutbacks battling graffiti, misplaced leniency in handling graffiti offenses and increased violence.

You can see how it happened. With all the more serious crimes to deal with, and the jails overcrowded as it is, the temptation is always to go easy on the taggers. A slap on the wrist and a lecture, as if it were Tom Sawyer scratching his feelings for Becky Thatcher in a fence post.

It’s not.

Usually not. Graffiti — the word comes from Latin for “writing” — actually takes several forms. It can be pure harassment, the slurs written on a synagogue, red paint defacing the hallowed Gold Star Families Memorial to fallen police officers at Soldier Field. It’s often a hate crime, a kind of assault by the malevolent or, at best, the unthinking, and needs to be treated as such. It may sound harsh to put a teen in jail for a short time for graffiti. But better that than to put him in jail for a longer time for something worse down the line.

If not direct harassment, graffiti can be an attempt to lay claim to a community — like dogs defining their territory, gang members paint their signs and names to try to define the borders of an area. This is even worse, because rather than assaulting one property owner, it assaults a whole community.

And yes, graffiti can be an art form, the distinctive balloon script, the vibrant colors, the wry social commentary of someone like Britain’s Banksy. Some works command big pricetags in galleries, others are used to decorate neighborhoods.

Which is fine, when the owner of the wall doesn’t mind. The problem is that some people try to use graffiti’s occasional artistic merit to rationalize and excuse its more common criminal forms under a thick mist of jargon.

But it doesn’t work. And to its victims — and yes, graffiti has victims — it’s an insult. At least the guy who mugs you isn’t fooling himself that he’s achieving a victory for the downtrodden.

Under most circumstances, graffiti is defacement at best, and gang activity and intimidation, at worst. We tolerate it at our peril.

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