If a boy doodles graffiti sketches at the back of the classroom, that should be as clear a warning sign as if he brought a knife to school, argues Sgt. Val Spicer, a presenter at Edmonton’s two-day anti-graffiti conference that opened Tuesday.
“I compare it to girls slashing their wrists. That’s their way of getting out aggression,” said Spicer in an interview before she presented to a group of 160 police officers, business representatives and community groups Tuesday at the Westin Hotel.
The diverse group gathered from across Canada to discuss latest research, share experiences and find solutions to the common tagging and hip hop pictures many say encourages more law-breaking in communities.
Spicer, an officer with the Vancouver police, bases her comments on a database of 536 offenders she analyzed for her masters thesis at Simon Fraser University.
She compared the age at which the offender first got involved with graffiti, how much they got involved in the hip-hop subculture, and the type of crimes they went on to commit later. The correlation was statistically significant, she said. The younger people got involved with graffiti, and the more heavily they got involved, the more likely they were to commit serious and violent crimes later on.
Tagging and socializing with graffiti crews has a “corroding effect,” she said.
“Anecdotally, I have watched many young people progress through graffiti into a full criminal career,” she wrote in her thesis. “Rather than assuming that all graffiti writers become artists, we need to consider that some may become bank robbers. The goal should be intervention at the first possible opportunity.”
In Edmonton, city crews dealt with more than 3,000 graffiti complaints last year. Of those, 354 complaints were reported to police before crews cleaned them up. Police complaints have been steady in the past five years.
City police have been focusing on compiling a database of tags so they can charge the more prolific offenders, said Const. Gerald Jorgenson. In August, they charged one 19-year-old Sherwood Park man with 176 counts of graffiti-related mischief.
Police are also working with Crown prosecutors to mimic a Vancouver restorative justice program that gets offenders involved in cleanup, and recruiters them to paint their own legal murals in key locations around the city. However, work on that project was postponed until after the winter.
Delegates at the conference are also scheduled to hear from a manager at the City of Langford, B.C. which took one graffiti writer and his parents to court and successfully sued them for damages. They’ll hear how 500 new murals in the City of Winnipeg are making a difference, and how planners in New York are changing the shape of city squares and parks to successfully discourage vandalism there.
In the hallway, industry representatives hawked pocket-sized graffiti cleaners meant to enable bus drivers, teachers and postal workers to eliminate small tags any time.
Kees Keizer, professor at the Dutch University of Groningen, presented his research on the societal effects of graffiti.
He found people walking through an alley were twice as likely to steal money if the alley had graffiti and litter. One quarter of the people in the study lifted the envelope of money hanging from a mailbox in locations where was graffiti and litter were present.
Daniel Kirk, a former graffiti writer from Calgary, said he came to the conference to advocate a deeper look at the cause.
What the research and many mural efforts miss is the people behind the problem, he said. “It doesn’t go away if you just paint over the graffiti. It’s cause and effect. Graffiti is an effect,” he said.
Kirk first picked up a spray can when he was 14. He got in a bit of trouble, then his dad found out. Eventually, he and his parents found a solution — art classes every Friday night.
“To watch progress in my ability was great. To me, art was transformative,” said Kirk, who now teaches drawing to adults at a continuing education centre. He credits the art classes for giving him a way to express himself, and getting him through university.
The prolific taggers he knows see themselves as non-conformists on many fronts, and in that they share more with the Occupy Wall Street movement than hardcore criminals, he said.
“The more you try to suppress it, the more it tends to proliferate,” said Kirk, who is scheduled to speak on a panel with other graffiti writers. Look at the bigger picture, he said. “The anger you can see in riots in Vancouver after a hockey game. You think that’s something different than why someone wants to go out and write (a swear) on a wall?”
ELISE STOLTE, EDMONTONJOURNAL.COM : Tuesday, October 18, 2011 4:58 PM