The neighbors down the street, a young couple with a dog, take great care to keep their front yard beautiful. They tend to resplendent white roses, a small menagerie of fruit trees, and flowering shrubs that consistently brighten our bucolic street. They also have a brilliant white stucco wall, about four-feet high that rings their front yard, separating the property from the municipal sidewalk and the traffic on a parallel avenue. Their house is a lovely exemplar of Urban Suburban, a little slice of bedroom community bliss transferred to a bustling metropolis.
Recently, someone with a can of spray paint defaced their wall with the word “Solo” and some faux artistic curlicues.
This sort of blight shows up on billboards, construction sites, parked buses, unguarded storefronts, and freeway overpasses. Seldom do you see it on a private home. But no matter where the graffiti shows up, it’s ugly.
The subculture of “urban artists” who participate in these impromptu markings receive copious coverage in our area newspapers, which chronicle — and romanticize — their antics. Indeed, not long ago readers of the LA Times were treated to a front-page story about one such criminal, who met an untimely end when an irate business owner, exasperated with having to repeatedly clean or replace his shop window, shot and killed this spray-painter caught in the act. The reporter quoted numerous family members and friends who recalled the dead youth’s musical promise and bright future, a future cut short when he was seduced by the dangerous charms of writing his name on other people’s property.
The expired criminal, according to the paper, was a “tagger.” The activity he was engaged in when shot was “tagging.” The storeowner was fed-up with his shop being “tagged.”
One small way we can discourage the practice of illegal spray painting is to describe what it rather than what criminals imagine it to be. Instead of glamorizing it with a cool euphemism, we ought to simply call it vandalism. The teenagers who engage in this degrading act are not hip members of a secret subculture; they’re vandals. People who paint their name everywhere are desperate to leave their mark on the world (literally), and given the lack of respect they have for themselves, defacing other people’s walls is probably the best shot they have. But we need not encourage the illusion that this form of graphomania is a legitimate way to be remembered. Indeed, we need to remind vandals that what they do is vandalism, and there’s nothing cool about it.