Afterthoughts: Wall Wrong

How do you solve a problem like graffiti? Not like this.

One of the great felicities in life is being able to choose your battles wisely. I was reminded of this recently because I noticed something that seemed … whatever the exact opposite of that is.


Have you seen those bright pink fliers that have been going up around town? They read, in all caps, “STOP GRAFFITI,” and each flier is usually plastered right on top of a piece of graffiti, whether on a store wall or a utility box. In smaller text, these fliers also call for stronger antigraffiti laws and bemoan the current epidemic of graffiti in Honolulu. (PASS NEW LAW: ONE YEAR IN JAIL. TOURISTS ARE SAYING HAWAI‘I IS LOOKING LIKE A GHETTO.) In a charming touch, the author of these fliers includes a “Hawai‘i’s Most Wanted” illustration with approximations of frequently seen tags around town: SA, 24K, CME, etc.


Afterthoughts stop graffiti
illustration: kimberly salt


The overall effect of the flier, with its weird phrasing and little sketches, is a little outsider-art, but whoever is putting these things up has got serious stamina—at this writing, hot-pink dotted McCully, Mō‘ili‘ili and Waikīkī. The barrage has even gotten media coverage, with reports on several local TV news stations.


I’m guessing the anonymous crusader is feeling a sense of accomplishment with all the attention. If so, it’s premature and unwarranted, because I can guarantee he’s not going to achieve his goals—at least not the way he’s going about it now.


First of all, c’mon, man, you’ve literally become the exact thing you’re protesting. Wheat-pasting scores of posters with your personal message all over private, city and state property? Yeah, that’s called graffiti. If police see you in action, I doubt they’ll be swayed by the fact that your handiwork happens to say, “Stop graffiti.”


Second, Hawai‘i’s criminal property damage laws, which cover graffiti infractions, are already pretty stiff, and can land an offender in jail for up to a year (for damage of more than $500) or even five (damage of more than $1,500). Good luck passing harsher legislation than that. Hawai‘i’s prisons are already overcrowded, and each prisoner costs more than $50,000 a year to house.


And, last, graffiti is one of those issues that is just about impossible to resolve with full-frontal attacks. I’m reminded of the old adage: “Never wrestle with pigs. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.”


This individual, by adopting the tools and tactics of graffiti writers, has picked a fight on their natural territory. This is basically what they do for fun. In the parlance of graffiti, covering over someone else’s work is called “capping.” It’s considered an insult, and the next thing that’s going to happen is they’re going to come back to reclaim the space. Then it’s a battle and whoever manages to stay “up” more wins.


Sure enough, in the days and weeks after those fliers have gone up, many have been scrawled over, with extreme prejudice. The walls and utility boxes around town now have more graffiti than when Mr. Pink started.


Of course battling graffiti writers out on the streets feels cathartic. It just doesn’t work.


I’m not suggesting we should legalize graffiti. But we should start thinking about the situation in terms of harm reduction rather than punitive action. Regular upkeep of buildings, for starters, particularly vacant ones (it’s no mystery why the old Genki Sushi building on Kapahulu Avenue has become a graffiti magnet). And commissioning high-quality murals to fill large exterior walls has proven to be a reliable preventive against casual tagging. Kaka‘ako, for example, with its abundance of warehouses and sparsely populated blocks, could easily be a graffiti mecca, but the annual street-art festival Pow! Wow! has turned it into something much easier on the eyes.


And that’s something other people are more likely to get behind than war waged by pink fliers.