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The Costs of Graffiti and a Debate Over Its Existence

In the conclusion to WFIU’s two-part series on graffiti, talks with business owners about the debate and the work of a city employee who cleans spray-paint.

Part 2: The Costs of Graffiti and a Debate Over its Existence

Photo: Emily Loftis/WFIU

The cost of wiping out graffiti is becoming more expensive for Bloomington city officials and for local proprietors.

Graffiti writers look at a piece and notice color schemes, form, background—and maybe even meaning.  But those who have to clean it up see resources spent as a result of someone else’s mischief.

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The city spends about two hundred dollars a month on materials and labor to clean up downtown property.  The cost has increased due to an influx in graffiti, as well as a rise in material costs. But getting spray paint off of limestone is economically and environmentally costly—and nearly impossible.  Susan Chambers is the city employee who tries anyways.  She’s paid to remove spray paint, marker and stickers from city buildings, signs and switch boxes.

Chambers said she spends a lot of time cleaning stoplight switch boxes. She sprays a solution called “Graffiti Gone” on the surface, and then lets it sit before scrubbing — and this is the easiest of surfaces to clean.  Brick and stone building clean-up can take hours.

“We worked on a small brick building.  And it had really thin letters, but they were really tall,” she said.  “We probably worked on that with a power washer for two hours, spraying bottles and bottles of this on there.”

But taxpayers aren’t the only ones paying for clean-up.  Business owners also feel the time and money spent on graffiti is a nuisance that should be stopped.

Marina and Patrick Ballor-Fiore own a downtown restaurant and keep a can of white paint handy to cover graffiti which appears on their property.  Marina said improvements are on hold until the problem is under control.

We need to repaint that side of the building, but we can’t invest all that money into it until the situation has been in control.”

She says the city is doing all it can, but the problem is still unmanageable for her.

“I mean I can’t spend my night by my windows with a bucket of boiling oil,” Marina said.  “That would actually get me in trouble.”

Unskillful Tagging or Art?

Despite the nuisance, Marina says she considers the graffiti unskillful tagging, rather than art.  She says in the appropriate location, graffiti can be an improvement, adding she enjoys a piece of graffiti facing her restaurant that covers the back of a billboard.

It’s actually a very nice graffiti.  I would be very sad if someone took it down, one down just erased it.  Whenever I see it on my deck I think it’s much more interesting to look at graffiti then at the back of an advertisement post, right?  So in some situations, it’s definitely an aesthetic improvement.”

But Beverly Anderson Calendar, Bloomington’s Safe and Civil City Director, said aesthetics are irrelevant.

“I think we all understand the art element until it gets on private property.  I don’t think that’s the issue,” she said. “The issue is the private property.”

Calendar takes a view that graffiti is vandalism and it’s not up to a writer to say what property needs improvement.

“It would be the same as if someone came and pulled up your flowers in your yard and said, ‘We thought if they were lying down instead of standing up, it would be more artistic,’” she said.  “But it’s not their call to decide what to do on someone else’s property.”

The city has increased police patrols in areas where graffiti has increased, and has installed cameras on the B-Line Trail.  Business owners are debating creation of new graffiti-friendly walls.  Some say it will offer a space for artists to practice their craft, apart from private property.  Detractors say such a wall only affirms the value of an act which should not be sanctioned.

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