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Proposed law would tag vandals with prison terms

June 16, 2013

Graffiti tags are shown covering an electrical box on Main Street in Pawtucket Thursday.

PAWTUCKET — Pawtucket City Councilor Albert Vitali Jr. has no problem nurturing the city’s artistic community and supporting budding young artists, but he draws the line at spray-painted phallic symbols, curse words and other graffiti he says is plaguing city walls.

Vitali says he’s noticing an increased amount of graffiti across Pawtucket and it’s not just city walls, storefronts and local businesses splattered with paint. “Just recently I saw graffiti all over the historic Division Street Bridge and the new Pawtucket River Bridge on the Taft Street side,” he says. “It’s not site specific. It’s all over the place.”

Rhode Island law defines the offense of graffiti as willfully, maliciously, or mischievously writing upon, painting or otherwise defacing any building. If you are accused of this offense, you will face misdemeanor charges.

Graffiti vandals who do more than $1,000 worth of damage could risk a felony conviction and up to a year in prison under legislation sponsored by state Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, a Providence Democrat.

“Graffiti is a serious crime that causes damage to property and costs owners hundreds or thousands of dollars to repair,” she says. “Often it can’t really be fully repaired at all. But worse, it makes neighborhoods look run-down and uncared for, sending a message to others that it won’t matter if they decide to add more graffiti, litter or blight to the area.”

Under the legislation pending in the General Assembly, anyone convicted of defacing public or private property could be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to jail time. Fines would be even higher for offenders who deface a highway overpass if cleanup crews must interfere with traffic to remove the vandalism.

In addition, juvenile offenders found guilty of the new law could be required to write a report on the historical significance of the property they vandalized.

The Senate approved the bill Thursday. The legislation will now be forwarded to the House of Representatives.

“I think it’s a great bill,” says Vitali, who’s received several graffiti complaints from business owners in recent weeks. “My personal opinion is that graffiti and tagging are far from contemporary art forms — its vandalism. I’m all for nurturing young artists, but that shouldn’t be a license for kids to tag anything and everything.”

Moreover, Vitali says, graffiti costs the community hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in painting and removal costs.

“To me, it’s no different than throwing a rock through a plate glass window of a business when that business owner has to spend all kinds of money to rid his building of unwanted graffiti,” he said.

Last month, Vitali sent a letter to Pawtucket Mayor Don Grebien to reactivate an anti-graffiti team at the Department of Public Works, which he says would concentrate on cleaning and removing graffiti, especially during the upcoming summer months.

Right now, the DPW has have taken it on themselves to go out and paint over tags when they get calls, but the city doesn't specifically fund or mandate graffiti abatement.

A dedicated anti-graffiti team, Vitali argues, could be high school or college students that would provide a more rapid response and remove graffiti, especially “offensive graffiti,” within 24 hours.

But Grebien, Vitali said, sent a letter recently to the City Council saying the DPW already does that and that there is really no need to do anything beyond what is already being done.

“Personally, I’d like to see more,” Vitali said. “I think our DPW guys are spread too thin and that it makes sense to have an anti-graffiti team dedicated to this one problem. This is a problem that is always going to happen in an urban community and it makes sense to keep ahead of it.”

“Graffiti shouldn’t be treated lightly,” Goodwin added. “It’s a genuine crime with real victims and high costs. It robs neighborhoods of their quality of life, and those who commit that vandalism should be held responsible for their actions.”

But not everyone is excited about Goodwin’s bill.

“People are quick to call everything graffiti and my fear is that this bill is labeling all street art as graffiti. Where do you draw the line?” says Yarrow Thorne, founder of The Avenue Concept, a street-art inspired public art organization in Providence that works with the city to create spaces where artists can spray paint walls legally.

His program “Yarrow’s Cans” helps control graffiti by partnering with the city and local business to paint over graffiti hotspots with artistic murals.

“You’re never going to stop negative tagging. It’s been going on for thousands of years,” he said. “But what you can do its take a building or property that has a lot of negative tagging and turn it into something positive using urban art.”

Woonsocket Police Chief Thomas S. Carey says his department has a system of rapid response to graffiti complaints, taking reports quickly after the incidents and calling the Department of Public Works for clean-up.

“We’ve had some tagging problems in the Fairmount area near the bridge, but noting major and it’s certainly not an epidemic in Woonsocket,” he says.

Two years ago, Carey teamed up with RiverzEdge Arts Project and NeighborWorks Blackstone River Valley on what would become the Dunn Park Mural project. In an effort to curb the graffiti and vandalism in Dunn Park, youth artists with RiverzEdge Arts Project designed and painted an 8-foot by 200-foot mural to promote the responsible use of the park and deter graffiti and other negative behaviors in the park.

“It was a great outreach project and collaboration with our city's non-profit and development organizations and it’s really made a difference there,” he said.

Goodwin says she stands by her bill.

“Graffiti has a significant indirect effect on the quality of life in addition to the direct physical damage it causes, so it really should be handled seriously,” she says.

Follow Joseph Fitzgerald on Twitter @jofitz7


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