March 2, 2023

The Graffiti Pandemic

One more sign of civilization in decline?

Arriving in Athens after nearly 24 hours of air travel, we were met at the airport by a Viking Cruise representative and taken by shuttle bus to the ship.

Athens is a beautiful city, and this was a perfect day to see it for the first time — sunny and sparkling, with the deep-blue sky common to all the travel brochures. But from our shuttle bus windows, what kept grabbing my attention was the graffiti — everywhere — seemingly covering every square inch of street-level vertical space in every direction.

It wasn’t offensive, or obscene, or particularly ugly. It was just there, intruding constantly on the iconic vista.

I asked our guide about it. She explained that Athenians consider their “street art” to be a good thing, artistic free expression. With that in mind, I look again at the endless stream of the street art (graffiti) flashing by the bus windows, and I can grudgingly admit that some of it is, in fact, colorful and engaging.

But most of it is not. In fact, it’s depressingly ordinary — the same spray-painted fat loopy words and shapes that contaminate urban landscapes everywhere, planted in every passerby’s line of sight, without consent, by anonymous people who choose to use other people’s property, public or private, as their personal canvas.

In recent years, large swaths of graffiti have become commonplace in nearly every European city. Not even Venice — that magical, timeless, once-pristine jewel of a city — is exempt. American cities are overrun with graffiti as well. I can’t quantify the trend, but my sense is that graffiti is expanding everywhere, exponentially and uncontrollably.

Are most people learning to like it (as surely some do)? Or are they just tolerating it? Or perhaps just tuning it out altogether? Regardless, graffiti is becoming a fixture in our landscape.

My point here is not just to be the grumpy old man grumbling about the quality of the public art or the behavior of those who insist on keeping it in our faces. I believe there are more compelling questions to consider. Is there a correlation between the external deterioration of our culture and its deeper internal upheavals? Is ever-present graffiti just one more visible sign of a decaying civilization?

I can think of one major example of civilization attempting to push back. In the 1970s (a time we all remember as ominously chaotic), every one of New York City’s 6,400 subway cars was hideously defaced with graffiti, top to bottom, inside and outside. And at the same time, that entire NYC subway system was in disarray and disrepair, with unreliable operations, diminishing ridership, and skyrocketing crime.

In New York City, mass transit is central to every aspect of urban life. For two decades, successive administrations struggled to arrest its decline. It may not have been clear whether the ubiquitous subway car graffiti was a cause or an effect of the deep-seated problems with the city’s sprawling system, but one thing was known for sure: the defaced cars sent the message that no one was in charge and that anything goes — anarchy in the subway.

Bit by bit, car by car, they eliminated graffiti from the NYC subway system; it was a massive, expensive crusade, and it was not until 1989 that the MTA could announce that the last car had been cleaned. And through that and other simultaneous efforts, the city’s trains started running on time and ridership that had given up on mass transit returned. The city’s subways became not just cleaner but safer.

NYC’s was not a permanent success. Graffiti is creeping back, and subway crime is up (although neither to the levels endured in the ‘70s). But the lesson, applicable to mass transit and every other aspect of modern life, is there for the learning.

Where is this all going? It seems clear enough today that vandalism of public and private property — even if such vandalism offers an opportunity for free expression — is incompatible with civilized life. And it seems clear as well that there is manageable middle ground, as being tried in the UK and elsewhere, of designating certain spaces for public art, with suitable acceptance criteria and controls.

In today’s political climate, that may be a hard sell. But the alternative is much uglier. Like subway cars in the 1970s, will every surface, public or private, become fair game for “free expression”? Your house? Your new car? Your children’s school? Ultimately, that would lead to the tipping point of collective public conviction that enough is enough. Better that we reach that point sooner than later.

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