Someone’s painting Columbia, but the city doesn’t like the colors.
Applying art to the walls and property of businesses and the city is much more prevalent than in past years, especially downtown. And city officials have been trying hard to combat the trend, using law enforcement, volunteer cleanups and more innovative strategies. But the problem persists. That’s why Stephanie Browning, director of the Columbia/Boone County Health Department, presented a report to the City Council on June 2 that highlights the progress various city departments have made and offers even more potential solutions.
“The proliferation of graffiti in Columbia, particularly in the downtown area, is of great concern,” Browning wrote in her report to the council. “Beginning in July 2007, staff from Police, Public Works, Parks and Recreation, and Cultural Affairs began meeting routinely with the (Special Business District) to identify strategies to combat the growing problem.”
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser said graffiti is one of the city’s growing pains.
Nauser said being proactive about eliminating aspects of Columbia that breed crime will persuade people to go somewhere else.
“We need to make Columbia not a desirable place to come for those types of people,” Nauser said. The challenge is figuring out how to do that.
The Columbia Police Department has been trying to use surveillance and special enforcement to fight graffiti since 2003, Sgt. Lloyd Simons said. One strategy was to place officers on top of parking garages with binoculars, searching the night streets and alleys for people painting walls, street signs and traffic boxes. Rooftop police have found people urinating, defecating and causing other public nuisances — but no graffiti artists. In fact, only three graffiti vandal arrests have occurred since 2003, and information leading to arrests generally come from tipsters, Simons said.
“It’s like any other crime,” Simons said. “It has its elements that make it hard to catch; it’s kind of a sneaky-type crime.”
Browning’s report notes that the city has spent about $3,000 to pay for surveillance and special enforcements. Some cities hire private investigators to track down those responsible, but that’s very expensive, Simons said.
While police struggle with enforcement, Public Works Department spokeswoman Jill Stedem said the focus of her staff is to clean up graffiti quickly as it’s reported. But the $160 per hour that it costs to pay and supply a cleanup crew adds up fast. Graffiti removal is only one of many tasks city workers do on a regular basis, so “this is just one more job that could be avoided that we have to deal with,” Stedem said.
Occasionally, volunteers unite to relieve the city’s small graffiti task force, said Leigh Britt volunteer coordinator of the Office of Volunteer Services. So far, about 80 volunteers have participated in one of the three volunteer work days that began in October.
Britt said Karis Community Church was the catalyst for the volunteer movement. Karis pastoral assistant Rob Gaskin said the church’s vision is not only to improve itself, but also to do good things for the city.
As part of being a member of the Special Business District, Karis, which meets in the Tiger Hotel, receives weekly e-mail news from the district. An e-mail last summer called Gaskin’s attention to the growing graffiti problem.
“Another aspect of the church is to be a need-responsive church,” Gaskin said. The city asked Karis to lead a downtown cleanup project in April. Twenty church members and 10 other Columbia residents hit the streets to clean paint off of walls and signs and scrape stickers from poles and trash cans.
“Some people don’t realize how much is out there until they actually pay attention to it,” he said.
The city also has been artistically innovative in its graffiti-prevention techniques. At the suggestion of the police department, the Office of Cultural Affairs looked into pursuing a pilot art project as part of an overall abatement plan and chose to have local artist David Spear paint a traffic box at the northwest corner of Ninth Street and Broadway, said office director Marie Nau Hunter.
“It was a very different thing to see on a traffic box,” she said. “It was definitely a fun project.”
Spear spent 56 hours painting the traffic box, not including design time. It cost $2,000. Before the box was painted in September, there were at least two “tags” on it. It has since been free of graffiti, Hunter said.
As further means of combating graffiti, the report suggested several methods of graffiti prevention, such as sponsoring a “graffiti summit” to educate communities on how they can help or by creating a central graffiti reporting location— a graffiti hot line or Web site. There has also been some discussion of adopting a “citywide zero tolerance policy,” which would require graffiti to be removed from all property owned by the city within one business day of when the graffiti is reported.
Gaskin said he only has a problem with graffiti because it represents destruction of another person’s property, not because he thinks it’s bad art or that it’s done by bad people.
“What I want to do is not delete or erase the culture (of graffiti) which is created, but rather transform it,” he said. “If I didn’t value the art, I wouldn’t care for it to be transformed and done well in a proper context.”
One of Karis’ core values is beauty. It values fine arts and hopes to see Columbia grow as a city of arts, culture, music and academics, Gaskin said.
“There are fragments of truth and beauty in everything that we see,” he said. “When I see graffiti on a wall, I see a fragment of beauty.”
But rather than relegating graffiti artists to painting in secret by moonlight, Gaskin wants to help them put their art on display in a more productive way, which would place the artist in a better light. He’s not advocating more programs; rather, he wants community and church leaders to move into the margins of Columbia and transform lives.
“We want to work side-by-side with people who are down there (in the city) doing their thing,” Gaskin said, adding that he shares city officials’ desire to keep Columbia “clean, growing, alive and well.”