Graffiti in Cincinnati: Crime or Culture?

13 Dec 2012, Posted by admin in Packages,Stories, No Comments. Tagged , , , , , ,

Graffiti in Cincinnati: Crime or Culture?


Story by Jack Ellenberger; video by Keith Bowers

Graffiti is a part of everyday life in Cincinnati. We walk past it everyday — from a gang member’s scribbles to a nationally renowned street artist’s delicate wheat pastes.

Some employ it as a means of expression and rebellion. Street artists have created a popular appeal around the practice of public, illicit stenciling, sticker placement and spray painting.

But the city, police, and some local organizations look as it as no more than illegal destruction of property — and they are stepping up efforts to stop it.

“It makes me very angry, in a lot of respects,” says Linda Holterhoff of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, a local affiliate of Keep America Beautiful that handles the complaints about graffiti. “It’s costing us taxpayers money, money that we don’t have anymore.”

Annually, the city spends around $200,000 on graffiti cleanup and removal.

“It still all comes down to permission…” Holterhoff says. “[Graffiti artists] know it’s illegal.  You learn that when you’re coloring on the walls when you’re three years old and get in trouble with your parents.”

Holterhoff subscribes to the “broken window theory,” a criminological theory that arose in the early 1980s. It states that when a building is left in disarray in urban areas, it leads to an increase in crime.

“When you leave the graffiti on, it sends that signal to the outside that nobody cares about the place, so therefore illegal activity comes in,” Holterhoff says.

Not all are opposed

Some business owners in the Northside neighborhood, home to many artists, have taken a different stance on graffiti.

Jim Blase, co-owner of Shake It Records, says of a new graffiti painting above the shop’s façade, “If they would have asked me, I certainly would have said yes (to the graffiti).  We’ve kind of embraced graffiti throughout the history of the store.”

Blase has had multiple graffiti designs commissioned for the store’s interior, and he even published a children’s book featuring local graffiti artist’s illustrations.  To Blase, the “broken window theory” doesn’t hold up.

“It (graffiti) brightens the neighborhood,” Blase says. “If it’s art, if it’s done with some originality and skill, then I think it looks fantastic.”

Tori Houlihan, who moved to Northside in 1990 and now spends much of her time volunteering with beautification projects in the area, doesn’t agree.

“I do try to talk to property owners who are more tolerant about it (graffiti) and encourage them to talk to authorities about removal,” Houlihan says.

After joining Citizens on Patrol more than a decade ago, she started doing community walkthroughs. “You see all the little forms of disrespect that neighborhoods like Northside have to go through, graffiti being one of the most obvious,” Houlihan says.

She spends a few hours a week removing or painting over offenses, which are often tags or stickers placed on traffic signs.

Houlihan thinks that the taggers act out of a desire to be seen or heard, but in her eyes “it’s totally disrespectful and narcissistic.”

Although some business owners are OK with moderate amounts of artfully done pieces, even if illegal, Houlihan finds her graffiti removal is met with a good response.

“When I started taking graffiti down, I had the concern that people would start hassling me, but I found that it was the exact opposite,” Houlihan says.

Legit street-style painting

Some in the city have capitalized on graffiti’s appeal.

Danny Babcock and Matt Dayler of Higher Level Art are two artists who’ve chosen to use the street-style painting as a form of fine art design.

When the economy crashed, Babcock and Dayler took it upon themselves to provide contracted and commissioned artwork for nearly every design studio in the city, as well as exhibition projects for corporations like P&G and Fifth Third Bank. Their work can be seen all over Cincinnati and is a prime example of an increasingly common oxymoron – “legal graffiti.”

His view on graffiti is that of a street-artist-turned-graphic-designer. He sees it as the misunderstood expression of artists who don’t necessarily know of any other means to showcase their work.

“I see both sides,” Babcock says. “I understand property destruction, and it is a crime, but clearly somebody doing graffiti doesn’t care that property destruction is a crime.”

Throwing the book at taggers in the courts for acts of misguided expression is considered excessive to some.

“In any crime, you know, the criminal should be assessed… what is their background, what’s their aptitude, what’s their future? It’s case by case,” Babcock says.

Tim Siewert of Tone House Records in Northside shares this view of meting out punishment.

“I don’t think there’s that big of a deal.  The crime should fit the punishment in the eyes of the business or building owner,” Siewert says.

After his building was tagged a couple of months ago, another business owner reported it to the police.  Siewert hasn’t taken any action to remove it.

“I thought it was a pretty nice piece. I thought it added to the neighborhood,” Siewert says.

Babcock sees the issue as one of ownership.

“Usually people who destroy things don’t own anything,” he says.  “If you want to truly help these people, then give them the opportunity to own something.”

Fining and limiting a youth’s future doesn’t encourage this, Babcock says.

At the end of the day, this isn’t a matter of negotiation. “We’re not here to talk about graffiti as an art form,” Holterhoff says.

For law enforcement and the beautification department, it’s a simple matter of unlawful property destruction, which is a felony. The authorities can bang their heads against the proverbial brick wall for now, but it’s essentially a game of cat and mouse where there is no end in sight. For many of these kids, it’s a need.

“Punish them. So what? They’re still going to do it anyway,” says Dayler of Higher Level Art.

In 2013, Holterhoff and Keep Cincinnati Beautiful will ramp up operations to stop graffiti as it happens. Those who get caught can expect to pay up to $5,000 in legal fees or do up to 500 hours of community service.

“If we catch you, the city is going to come after you, hook line and sinker, “ she says.

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