COLUMBIA— On the brick walls of downtown Columbia, names and figures have been scrawled and drawn in paint. In jet black lines, stencils of Yoda and Donnie Darko’s Halloween rabbit mask preside over the alley south of the former Ninth Street Bookstore.
Scribbled monikers — known as tags — line alleys and street corners in an array of colors telling other taggers who marked the surface. But the paint doesn’t stop at the boundaries of downtown.
History lessonGraffiti originated in Philadelphia during the 1960s before spreading to New York City and taking off in popularity. Julio 204, credited with being one of the first in New York City, used Magic Markers and spray paint to tag. The public was introduced to graffiti in July 1971 when the New York Times ran an article on local tagger TAKI 183. As a foot messenger, he left his tag on places he visited while on errands. Source: nymag.com/guides/summer/ 17406/
“It’s spreading out, and business owners are taking a hit,” said Columbia police Officer Kathy Dodd.
The city addressed the issue of graffiti downtown at a city staff meeting on July 17 that brought together the Columbia Police Department and District, Cultural Affairs and Public Works officials. Officer Tim Thomason talked about educating residents and business owners on graffiti removal as well as creating voluntary graffiti walls commissioned by businesses. He also suggested creation of a public graffiti wall, although he added he’s unsure if money would be available for the projects.
“We’re looking to attack the problem as a team and find alternatives for deterring perpetrators,” said Jill Stedem of the Columbia Public Works Department.
Columbia police have a special detail to prevent graffiti, but Dodd wouldn’t elaborate on that effort.
The graffiti discussion hasn’t been limited to public officials. In a letter published June 30 in the Columbia Tribune, Lynn Hill, from Hallsville, expressed her concerns “about the sudden explosion of graffiti that has splattered mid-Columbia during the past couple of weeks.” She went on to say that the graffiti made Columbia look like a “gangland” and “wasteland” and called for business owners and the city to “clean off or paint out the existing graffiti.”
Hill said after her letter was published that the graffiti caused her to skip some of the Twilight Festival this year. And she doesn’t think she’s the only one.
“The graffiti probably does influence people to not go downtown because they’re concerned,” she said.
Hill’s letter prompted an online conversation among the North-Central Columbia Neighborhood Association listserv, and most of those who responded seemed pro-graffiti.
“There’s a value to nonsanctioned art,” Tracy Greever-Rice said. “Look at the Berlin Wall. The pieces of the wall with graffiti sell for more than the non-graffiti pieces.”
Greever-Rice has a simple question for her fellow Columbians: “Walk down an alley downtown sometime and ask, ‘Is this alley any uglier with the graffiti?’”
While residents wrestle with questions of aesthetics, business owners tend to see the issue in terms of dollars and cents. Richard King, owner of the Blue Note, said it usually takes two to three hours to get matching paint and cover up the graffiti, and the additional expenses aren’t good for business.
“No one has the right to spray public property that they don’t own,” King said. “I’m sure someone wouldn’t like someone coming into their house and spraying things.”
No matter how much artistic appeal the pieces of graffiti might have to some, the police are quick to point out it is still a crime.
“Tagging isn’t artwork, it’s property damage,” Dodd said. “No one is asking permission to do graffiti.”
The penalties for property damage depend on the courts and circumstances surrounding the crime, according to the Police Department. Violators can face a maximum $500 fine and/or six months in jail for a city offense and up to a $5,000 fine and/or four years in the Department of Corrections for a state offense.
Despite the risks, graffiti taggers still hit the streets.
“Graffiti is a medium for someone to express oneself, even though it’s on public property,” said a 23-year-old Columbia resident who used to tag.
The ex-tagger, who requested anonymity for fear of police reaction, is also critical of the city’s idea of a public wall.
“No true graffiti artist would tag a public wall,” he said. “Having a public wall takes away from some of the actual aspects of graffiti, such as throwing up a piece and the thrill of getting away.”
Many residents aren’t sure who is responsible for the boom of graffiti.
“The graffiti could be gang-related, or just kids looking for time to kill; I don’t know,” Hill said.
The city will take up the subject again on Aug. 2. Skip DuCharme, owner of Lakota Coffee, which has been tagged, would like to see both pro and con graffiti sides come together.
“You just need to get both groups talking,” DuCharme said. “If you got permission to do it or there is a designated area, that’s fine. But if you’re just going to spray paint someone’s building for the sake of art, that’s not right.”
King said he would be willing to sit down with an artist to collaborate on a project on his property. He understood his offer might go unaccepted.
“No matter how reasonable you’ll be, they will still do (graffiti),” King said, “and that is the problem.”
Christina Kelley, owner of Makes Scents on Ninth Street, hung a CrimeStoppers sign in her window as part of the District’s effort to gain information on taggers. She is concerned about the increase of graffiti and how blatant taggers have become.
“It’s always busy on Ninth Street 24/7,” she said. “If they’re doing (graffiti) consistently on Ninth, they should be easily caught.”
In the city
First degree property damage:
- damages exceeding $500
- a class-A misdemeanor
- fines up to $1,000 and/or 12 months in jail.
Second degree property damage:
- damages under $500
- class-B misdemeanor
- fines up to $500 and/or six months in jail
Source: Shara Myer, Columbia Municipal Court clerk.
In the state
First degree damage:
- fines up to $5,000 fine and/or four years in the Department of Corrections
Second degree property damage:
- A class-B misdemeanor
- Fines up to $500 and/or six months in jail
Source: Boone County Assistant Prosecutor Breck Burgess