Street art was once synonymous with gangs and tagging. Why is this? Well, at the root of it, it comes down to racism, classism, and fear. Think about the images of 1980s New York City train cars, rolling into the stations, covered in brightly colored words and images. What’s frightening about that? For those who opposed street art, they saw it as crass and unseemly. They had no control over who made it, what it looked like, and where it was. It wasn’t planned, and it wasn’t announced. It wasn’t executed in the popular style of the time. It didn’t look like “high art”. People who did street art weren’t rich, and often weren’t white. They didn’t fit the mainstream concept of artist.
The social and cultural arc of street art in America is tied very closely to the history of disinvestment, segregation, and under-resourcing of urban communities of color. And the criminalization of graffiti runs parallel to the criminalization of poverty and the rise of mass incarceration. Most cities instated harsh laws against graffiti in the 1990s, at the same time that prisons were popping up everywhere, and tough-on-crime legislation was in vogue. It was part of a philosophy towards public safety that falsely believed punishing small misdemeanors with harsh punishments would deter people from committing violent crime.
Instead, laws against graffiti, like laws against marijuana, panhandling, and sex work, turned out to put people under extreme financial duress, prevent them from accessing higher education and safe housing, and in many cases exclude them from the workforce. Anti-graffiti laws are part of a larger cycle of poverty and criminalization that result in over-policing, lack of economic opportunity, and failure to address real public health crises like addiction and mental health.
Needless to say, anti-graffiti laws also have a negative effect on the production of new street art. Some artists were dissuaded from creating altogether, not wanting to risk the consequences. For many folks, street art and graffiti were accessible ways to be creative and practice art that they could afford. When it was no longer an option, practicing art became much more difficult. People who did risk fines and imprisonment still had to contend with the reality that their work would likely only last a few days, before the city painted over it or power-washed it away. In Chicago, the laws are especially tough, and have stayed that way. Many other cities have relaxed regulations on graffiti and lowered fines, but Chicago has only tightened its insistence on stamping out unofficial street art, wherever it pops up.
In Chicago, these laws took form in the early 1990s, under the second Mayor Daley. The second Daley was a veritable crusader against graffiti, which he saw as a blight on the city’s new development. Notorious for his racism and classism (see the 1995 Chicago heat wave for a glaring example), Daley’s attitudes towards graffiti were no surprise. He thought that graffiti would make Chicago ugly and drive out developers, tourists, and new residents flocking in from wealthy suburbs. Daley focused his mayoral efforts on Downtown and the near Northside and near Southside. He neglected any needed resources in less wealthy and white areas, pouring Chicago’s budget into making the center of Chicago picturesque.
However, graffiti was not confined to low-income areas, with artists often travelling to tag and create their large-scale pieces. Many artists of the 1980s worked on train cars, enjoying the all-city aspect of their work, which would travel on its own and provide plenty of opportunities for viewing. So, in 1992 Daley prohibited the sale of spray-paint within city limits, to the dismay of artists and paint manufacturers. It was his first foray into anti-graffiti law, and it made him a lot of enemies.
The ordinance was challenged in court, and made its way all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was upheld. This ordinance is still in place today, although ironically, it’s a huge money-loser for the city. Most people who really wanted to get their hands on spray-paint simply travelled outside of city limits to purchase what they were looking for.
The ban on spray-paint was just the beginning, and the truly effectual anti-graffiti laws were still around the corner. As it became clear that the ban had less impact on the proliferation of street art than the Mayor intended, he formed a new department of the city government. The Graffiti Blasters were officially inaugurated in 1993, and became a task force devoted to the quick removal of any street art which popped up.
Anyone could call the city or their alderman and report graffiti on private or public property. The city would be there within 48-hours to either blast the paint off the surface with pressure washers filled with a solution of water and baking soda, or to paint over it with dark brown. This program still exists today, although the penalties for getting caught creating street art are much worse than in the 1990s. A ticket for graffiti can reach $2,500, a crushing price to pay for a simple piece of street art.
A video on the City of Chicago’s website today says, “Graffiti is vandalism. It scars the community, hurts property values and diminishes our quality of life. Graffiti removal is a free service for private property owners and has become one of the most popular services offered by the City of Chicago.” The price of the city’s graffiti removal services are quite high, as they have to employ year-round Graffiti Blasters and purchase plenty of vehicles and other materials. The anti-graffiti program cost $9 million in 2010. In 2014, then Mayor Rahm Emmanuel threw another million dollars at graffiti removal, citing the need for efficient and speedy removal of the offending artwork.
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