City to Crack Down on Graffiti?

Council to consider "vandalism" abatement program

Street art or graffiti? Sometimes one precedes the other. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Next month city staff are expected to recommend to City Council the rollout of a large-scale graffiti abatement program, which will likely include a package of penalties to beef up efforts to prevent vandalism. In a town that considers art one of its cornerstones, advocates of the program make a distinction between street art done with permission and the unauthorized acts of tagging. But in the rapidly changing neighborhoods of Central East Austin, the intersection of race and culture muddies the waters and raises the question of who decides what kind of graffiti belongs in the neighborhood, and what should be hosed off.

At present, Austin Public Health runs its own graffiti abatement program as part of the Austin Youth Development Program, which employs at-risk young adults and gives them the opportunity to develop career-oriented skills. The program has two trucks that respond to service requests around the city each day, but when Council Member Leslie Pool took office in 2015, she envisioned something bigger.

Pool says Austin's growth brings many amenities to its residents, but also carries its share of problems. In particular, she said, there has been an increase in tagging of city-owned property, specifically mentioning the bridges along Shoal Creek. The current program doesn't have the resources to keep up with that escalation. "My concern with the issue is making sure young adults don't take the wrong road in their development," she said, speaking not only as a city official but as a parent. "I don't want them to end up having criminal charges on their record, or having a record at all."

According to city figures from 2015, the districts with the most graffiti service requests are District 3 (1,081) and District 9 (1,319). A budget proposal from Pool's office last year references a U.S. Department of Justice report that says "graffiti contributes to lost revenue associated with reduced ridership on transit systems, reduced retail sales, and declines in property value."

In spite of Pool's repeated calls for a rebooted graffiti abatement program, the ball didn't really start rolling until Sara Hens­ley was appointed as an interim assistant city manager after Sue Edwards retired back in March. Hensley, who had helped run a graffiti abatement program as the director of Parks, Recreation and Neighborhood Services for the City of San Jose (she directed Austin's PARD prior to succeeding Edwards), invited consultant and former colleague Rick Stanton to visit Austin at the end of July to educate staff on best practices. Stanton said that Austin did not have the worst case of vandalism he'd ever seen, but that tagging was still more prevalent than he expected. "If you think it's going to go away on its own, it's not," he said. "It's going to grow."

City staff also made a trip to San Antonio last month to observe and learn from that city's successful program, where the motto is "Report, Record, Remove." Lisa McKen­zie, San Antonio's graffiti coordinator, oversees volunteer programs that engage the community in removing graffiti from neighborhoods, and also works closely with the San Antonio Police Department. Hensley said Austin should take lessons from more established programs like McKenzie's, but she still recognizes how Austin may be unique. "We don't want to penalize people for being creative," she said. "We do want to make sure we have a distinction between what is tagging and what is art. We want to be a little different."

Another way Austin is unique is its rapid rate of gentrification. The central Eastside has borne the brunt of the displacement. Eastside artist Martin Coronado remembers growing up in the Eighties when that area of the city was poorer, and rival gangs from the East Grand Barrio and the Latin Kings would fight over turf. "Back then, the graffiti scene was blowing up in Austin," he said. "There were a lot of talented cats that came out of that area. They were really influenced by the culture coming up out of New York." Ultimately, what appealed to him about the culture was that it gave him a way to be seen in a part of town that did not offer many alternatives. He made his first tag when he was 17. "I wanted everybody to see it," he said. "It was the best feeling in the world."

Today, the city's graffiti has become more political, as evidenced by the response to the recent paint-over of the mural on 12th and Chicon streets, and the tagging done on the Blue Cat Cafe on East Cesar Chavez, which occupies the space once held by the Jumpolin piñata store. Coronado fears that any broader graffiti abatement program could lead to the further criminalization of black and brown youth, particularly with the September threat of Senate Bill 4. Pool and Hensley disagree, and see reform as a way to increase deterrence. As for what the young graffiti artists think, the writing's on the wall.

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street art, Leslie Pool, Sara Hensley, Martin Coronado

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