War on Graffiti Rages On

On July 1st, Councilman Peter Vallone’s newest piece of anti-graffiti legislation went into effect. The new bill, which prohibits the

Photo by Ian Reid for Getty Images

On July 1st, Councilman Peter Vallone’s newest piece of anti-graffiti legislation went into effect. The new bill, which prohibits the purchase and installation of new roll-down security gates (a classic canvas for graffiti) on city storefronts, took the Councilman five years to get passed. “This bill is one of the things I am most proud of,” Mr. Vallone—dubbed “Graffiti’s Public Enemy No. 1”—declared in his recent interview with The Observer.

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Contrary to some misinformed grumbling, the bill does not make owning a roll-down gate illegal. Rather, it is now illegal to purchase and install a new roll-down gate. “No one has to replace their current gates,” Mr. Vallone emphasized. From now on, however, any new security gate that is installed must provide at least 70% visibility of the shop behind it.

The bill attacks graffiti in a roundabout way. “It is part of a pattern of novel approaches,” Mr. Vallone says of his bill. Approaches dedicated to cleaning up the city. Mr. Vallone is devoting his tenancy as Public Safety Chair to these cleaning efforts because he believes it will make the City safer.

Listening to Mr. Vallone tell us about his initiatives, The Observer was reminded of Mayor Giuliani’s city clean-up policy in the 90’s which centered around the (then-avant-garde) Broken Windows Theory.

The theory—put forth in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic Monthly—was developed by Harvard University social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling as an innovative approach to the issue of social disorder and crime in urban environments. The theory got its name from the conviction that if “a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken,” regardless of what type of neighborhood the building is in.

Throughout the city, sparsely-tagged walls are rare, yet we frequently encounter walls covered in graffiti. Thus, the Broken Windows Theory of 1982 aptly becomes the Graffitied Wall Theory of 2011. By focusing on neighborhood clean-up projects, Mr. Vallone is attempting to make a safer city.

Mr. Vallone’s (near-)fanatical obsession with graffiti is also evident in his proposed legislation that targets graffiti artists themselves. Street art has long been a staple of New York City pop-culture, and while Mr. Vallone grudgingly agrees, he believes there is a fine line between vandalism and art. He reluctantly conceded to The Observer that “a very small percentage [of graffiti] shows some artistic ability.”

Recently, Mr. Vallone opposed Brooklyn Museum of Art’s planned “Art in the Streets” exhibition, because of its overt support of street art, or graffiti, as a medium of artistic expression. Despite some controversy, the exhibition is quite popular at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, CA.

He has also restricted the ease with which vandals (and artists alike) can purchase certain graffiti-related supplies. You now have to be at least 21 years of age to possess etching acid, and he is actively working to have the same restrictions applied to “Fat Caps” (which allow users to paint larger areas more quickly) and “Graffiti Pens” (diamond-tipped pens used for fine etching).

“I am running out of ideas,” the confident Councilman admitted, and he concluded his interview with The Observer by telling us that (contrary to rumor) he has no plans to run for Congress in 2012 and will remain as the Public Safety Chair of the City Council for the next two years–where he can fight the War on Graffiti.

His best chance for victory? Following the sage advice of Messrs. Wilson and Kelling, break out the cleaning supplies, and start scrubbin’.

War on Graffiti Rages On