Graffiti Busters erase scrawl to discourage wider disorder

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BOSTON – If something strange pops up in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?

In the Hub, thanks to an initiative from the late former Mayor Thomas M. Menino, you can call the “Graffiti Busters,” a group of city workers and volunteers who scrub graffiti from brick, concrete or stone all around the city.

The program lets residents and building owners contact the Busters online or insert details through the city’s 311 service. The crews will remove unwanted paint from both public and even private property, with permission of the owner and a signed liability release.

In 2015, the team removed 4,600 examples of graffiti, according to Kenneth Ryan, who spearheads the Graffiti Busters under the city’s Property and Construction Management Department. Since 2011, the department has cleaned up more than 12,600 marked areas.

Some neighborhood associations, like a Back Bay group, also sponsor graffiti-cleanup days for historic buildings. A city ordinance requires property owners to remove graffiti from their buildings within 30 days of discovery or face a $100 fine. And since graffiti removal can often cost a property owner from $1,000 to $5,000, Ryan said, the free Graffiti Busters service is often a welcome alternative.

Although some argue that graffiti can represent artistic expression, others say quick and efficient cleanup of spray-painted graphics helps ensure public order. One of the driving schools of thought behind this stems from the “broken windows theory,” a term coined in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article by Harvard University Professor James Wilson and Harvard research fellow George Kelling. The policy was most notably implemented by the New York Police Department under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Commissioner William Bratton in the early 1990s.

The idea is that minor crimes like littering, vandalism or graffiti create an atmosphere of disorder, and, if left unaddressed, actually encourage future incidents and potentially more serious crime. Through careful monitoring of neighborhoods and rapid response, future incidents can be minimized, the theory holds.

Although considered revolutionary when it appeared, the policing technique it spawned has been heavily criticized for encouraging unfair treatment of minorities, or for simply not getting at the root of criminal behavior. Recent protests have also challenged the theory and policies that extend from it as feeding discriminatory policing. Kelling, now a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, has defended his theory in recent years, saying that it could be improved, but is still relevant and has led to decreased crime nationwide.

A Boston Area Research Initiative study released in 2015 argued that violence may come instead from domestic, individual disputes that can feed overall disorder in a neighborhood. By examining City Hall service hotline and 911 emergency calls over two years, the researchers used the city’s “constituent relationship management” database, the researchers said that their analysis indicates that while “traditional interpretations of broken windows emphasize the role of public disorder, private conflict most strongly predicted future crime.”  

Along with a “broken windows” approach, though it wasn’t officially called that, Menino launched the Graffiti Busters team in 1995, including occasional multi-agency efforts like “Graffiti Busters attack week,” to sweep through the city from Allston to East Boston. Under Mayor Marty Walsh’s administration, the program has kicked up its services, with a team of four crew members and four trucks – including two “Graffiti Buster” trucks that can hold 500 gallons of water for pressure washing.

Ryan, who joined the agency under Walsh, boils down the broken windows theory in his own words – “if you see something, say something,” he said. “There’s a system.”

“We’ve streamlined a lot of the ways things are handled and the way we’ve tackled the program,” Ryan said. “First we take off anything on schools, anything vulgar, any profanity, or gang-related – I try to get that within 36 hours.”

During special events like the St. Patrick’s Day parade and the Boston Marathon, the Graffiti Busters prioritize highly-trafficked routes. Allston-Brighton is also a frequent-complaint neighborhood, he said, with its high concentration of college students. And anywhere near areas frequented by tourists are handled as soon as possible.

Although Ryan’s team takes care of most of the graffiti in the city – and even occasionally in nearby municipalities like Newton when requested – they’re limited. Organizations like the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority have their own graffiti-removal teams. But the T’s unit is limited to “off hours” when trains aren’t running, between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m., Ryan said, which is why residents are likely to see the most graffiti near train tracks.

Other cities in the Northeast have similar graffiti response teams, such as Burlington, Vermont, Providence, Rhode Island, Bridgeport, Connecticut, and New York. But while simply removing the graffiti is the most frequently used solution, filling the empty walls that are often viewed as blank canvases for street artists and bored youth is another solution that some administrations pursue.

In Burlington, volunteers and those responsible for the graffiti are invited to participate in city-approved painting projects and murals for deteriorating or frequently “tagged” spaces. Since 2001, volunteers have painted at least six frequently tagged walls with murals. In 2011, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras partnered with the city’s Department of Arts, Culture and Tourism and three community groups to paint murals and public art on transformer boxes.

Some Bay State areas have been dubbed “legal” walls, including Clemenzi Industrial Park in Beverly and the Richard B. “Rico” Modica Way in Central Square, Cambridge. Anecdotal evidence seems to point to mischievous or offensive graffiti declining with increased access to legal spaces.

Boston has also experimented with “positive spaces” from walls at the Bartlett Yard to “Designated Free Wall Space” over recent years. And in the summer of 2014, Walsh announced “Boston art walls,” which sanctioned open wall space for local graffiti artists. Even the non-graffiti related public art projects, like the Mayor’s Mural Crew, sponsored by the city’s Department of Arts, Tourism and Special Events, is encouraged as a public outlet for artists.

Allston, MA (New Boston Post photo by Beth Treffeisen)
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Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or on Twitter @karabettis.