Vandals have tagged walls, bridges and signs around Durango, a proliferation of graffiti that has cost the city time and money to remove.
Durango Parks and Recreation employees have spent hundreds of dollars on paint and almost a dozen hours of taxpayer-backed time in the past six weeks to cover the scribblings in parks, along trails and on public buildings, said Kelli Jaycox, assistant recreation director.
“(Parks employees) could be cleaning bathrooms, picking up trash, mowing lawns, pulling weeds, trimming trees, cleaning tennis courts, trail maintenance ...,” she said. “There’s a lot of stuff they could be doing (other than covering graffiti).”
City officials face a difficult task when it comes to combating graffiti, which often takes the form of a “random word or drawing” made with spray paint or a permanent marker under the cover of darkness, Jaycox said.
Another form of graffiti, or public defacing, includes placing stickers on light posts or street signs, said Steve Barkley, code enforcement officer.
Cameras could help – their presence effectively stopped graffiti at the Durango Skate Park, he said. But the graffiti city employees see around town now is too “random” to justify putting a visual monitoring device in any specific location, he said.
“It could be anything from a light pole to a transmission box to the outside of a building,” Barkley said. “There’s no regular single location we can monitor on a regular basis. It’s just hit and miss.”
Yet a third form of graffiti can blur the line between vandalism and art. Think Banksy, the anonymous England-based street artist who invokes social commentary in his displays of public expression. His graffiti – never confused with street tagging – can be worth thousands to the unlucky, ’er lucky, building owners.
Interestingly, part of the answer to combating graffiti may be an embrace of public art.
Barkley said people in Durango don’t tag murals. At least not often.
Hayley Kirkman, creative arts and special projects coordinator with Local First, said she has seen graffiti all over town. It seems appropriate in some places – like on abandoned rail cars near the Greenmount Cemetery – and unacceptable in others, she said.
“Obviously, there is some connection to gangs; that’s where it (graffiti) originated. It’s since evolved to an art form,” she said. “There are communities in Durango that revere that style of art. I don’t know if the purpose is to practice that style and be part of it or have a claim of ownership for a particular wall. There is an egotistical aspect of it that I never really liked about graffiti, especially people who graffiti on murals. I’ve seen murals defaced in big cities.”
Jaycox said in her 18 years with the Parks and Recreation Department, it has been understood that problem graffiti areas can be mitigated through sanctioned public art.
Kirkman said the mural behind Kroegers Ace Hardware has been defaced only twice, and each was relatively small lines of text written in permanent marker. But the words weren’t random, specifically stylized or identifying in nature, like many tags around town, she said. One defacement read: “Money Ruins Our Town,” she said.
“That’s not a tag, that’s not any sort of ownership tag. It’s a statement that somebody obviously wanted to get across and wanted to be seen,” Kirkman said. “I’m not mad by any means; I just want to know why they would have written that.”
Graffiti has a time and a place, Kirkman said, and seeking permission to paint or draw in public often refines the artistic process and forces people to think about the impacts of their art and how they want it to affect people. A mural near a gas station at the corner of East Eighth Avenue and College Drive changes each quarter, Barkley said.
Kirkman said she was once painting there and people booed her because she was painting over a previous piece, but she shrugged it off as discontent that she was covering something people had grown to admire.
“There’s been radical art movements where people didn’t get permission and it worked out really well,” she said. “I don’t see a problem with getting permission to say what you want to say.”
Some cities offer sanctioned places for graffiti, like the Graffiti Park at Castle Hill in Austin, Texas. Local First encouraged residents to paint on a concrete wall that has since been demolished on north Main Avenue. The theme was “Community is ...” and people were encouraged to paint whatever came to their minds.
“I would totally be on board with the city designating a certain area for freedom of expression. It can have some real positive effects,” Kirkman said. “Just witnessing how free people were with the now-bulldozed wall that we painted on. It’s really neat, to see what people do with no rules. But unfortunately, we need rules.”
Assistant Parks Director Jaycox said the city once considered a designated area for graffiti-style art, but after researching its impacts in other cities, officials decided not to pursue the idea.
Staff found years ago that a sanctioned area for spontaneous public art in other cities did not reduce the amount of tagging in other areas.
“Doing it how they’re doing it just takes time and money and makes our parks not look nice,” Jaycox said. “Even when we paint over them, it doesn’t look nice.”