Taggers and artists: Either way, graffiti doesn't deserve a felony

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Far more often than is at all warranted, a bill proposing to "crack down" on graffiti -- like the one shot down in committee by the state legislator yesterday -- comes up in some form of government, promising to eradicate the scourge of people scribbling on shit once and for all. Aside from that it's probably the least pressing social problem out there and that most of the "perpetrators" are kids who have no idea what they're getting into with the already-harsh legal system around it, the real shame of these periodic graffiti crackdowns is that they make "serious" crimes out of spontaneous art -- not that it's always so artistic, I know. It can be really fucking annoying, too.

Not so long ago, I used to live a couple of blocks away from West High School at 11th and Speer -- not exactly the high school with the greatest reputation -- in a house that had a garage with no doors on it (thanks a lot, landlord). As you can probably imagine, this garage, which opened into the alley behind the house, provided a convenient hangout for degenerate high-schoolers skipping class during the day to duck into and puff a blunt, or do whatever the degenerate kids are doing these days. At first, I didn't really mind this.

Besides degenerates, the other thing that I kept in that garage was an old BMW; a 1972 2002 model that I loved, even though it was a money-pit and I didn't have the dough to fix it right then, and for most of the two years I lived in that house it just sat in the garage (I did later throw down the money to get it running again; it later got rear-ended and totaled). To give you an idea of why it was so awesome, here is a picture of a similar car (mine wasn't quite as blingin', but it was still in good shape):

So there the car sat, in the garage with the degenerates, but they didn't seem to mess with the car -- until they did. I was taking our the trash when I noticed it:

Those little shits were writing tags on my fucking car!

I was furious. Eventually, I ran them off when I came home early for lunch and spotted a group of them back there, and with nerves of steel and deadly-accurate aim, pegged one of them with the open can of Dr. Pepper I was drinking. Then they didn't come back. Later, I scrubbed the tags off with bleach, which left rub-marks in the paint, but the paint was pretty faded anyway, so it wasn't that big a deal.

Nevertheless, the point is that I'm well acquainted with annoying taggers, those kids that artlessly write their name on everything with no more panache than a dog lifting his leg. But as pissed as I was at those little pricks, there's still no reason for them to be charged with a felony, as the legislature had proposed -- at they would have; under the law, damage of more than $1,000 counts as a felony, and if I had been angry enough, I could've easily found an estimate for more than $1,000 to repaint that car. Attorney Maureen Cain, who testified against the bill on behalf of the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar, put it well: "We continue to disenfranchise people with felony convictions with greater and greater extent."

When you break it down, there are probably two big groups of people who engage in graffiti: One is the kids who tag stuff just to do it, because it's cool and they aren't thinking about the consequences, because they're teenagers whose hormones and stupidity prevent them from thinking about consequences. This is the irritating group, but also the group that is too young, dumb and harmless for it to be reasonable or fair to stigmatize the rest of their lives with a felony conviction.

The other group is those who devote their lives to it, who do know better, but who are also the ones making art worth looking at -- take Banksy, for example, recently immortalized in the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, whose previously illegal works of vandalism are now raising property values. That's not necessarily to say that all graffiti raises property values, but it sure can make boring stuff more interesting to look at.

At the end of the day, you can't really characterize graffiti as good or bad; it could be either, depending on who's looking. But penalties for graffiti in this city, at least, are already pretty stiff -- legislators were right to reject further criminalizing something that, ultimately, makes the world we live in a little more colorful. Even if it is annoying.

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