14 Jan 2014

Taggers, graffiti and incentives

A few months ago, we did a neighborhood clean up a few km away from our place. I was eager and excited to get all the garbage under the freeway overpass, but also a little depressed that people so casually dumped their crap into common areas ("the tragedy of the assholes").

I was surprised to see so many empty spray cans (we picked up 40+) lying around, and that got me to thinking about potential ways to keep them out of the environment and in garbage cans:
  1. Put a deposit on cans of spray paint. New cans will come back; old cans will be found.*
  2. Shame "artists" and taggers by associating their work with litter instead of glamor (we mean you, Pinup!)
  3. from Vancouver
  4. Give taggers "territory" that they can paint and repaint without interference, as long as they keep it clean
from Medellin, Colombia
Bottom Line: Street artists want to fit in even as they stand out. Change their incentives if you want to change their actions.**

* I emailed the city of Vancouver with suggestion (1). They said "leave a message with engineering; it's not our jurisdiction," which was pretty unhelpful (a caring insider would FIND the person to handle it).

** Incentives to stop tagging, etc. (jail, fines) won't work because the POINT is to break rules and tag.


  1. Taggers are not frustrated artists. They typically come from immigrant neighborhoods that want to keep out gentrifiers from bidding up rents and buying up homes to rehab because it prices their families out of the market. So tagging is a social symbol to stay out of such neighborhoods because bourgeouise aesthetic values of lawns and restored old homes are not wanted. The message is that if first time buyers start moving in there will be property crimes. This drives the first times buyers out to the suburbs to find housing and schools. That is why tagging is criminalized. Cheap housing is available in areas of older housing stock but that is typically gobbled up by economic migrants who don't want newcomers to push them out. So cities end up with inclusionary housing programs to build low income units in pricey luxury condo and apartment projects but the reverse is not enforced: carving out housing in areas of older housing stock for first time buyers.

  2. @Wayne -- that's surely part of the explanation, and I really dislike taggers (putting only their name) compared to "street artists" who create images, etc. OTOH, I think that some taggers are just insecure, rather than commenting on gentrification.

  3. Re. bureaucrats and getting shuffled from office to office: I recommend the movie "Ikiru" (1952) if you have not seen it already.

  4. I like to think that not all taggers or grafitti artists love to litter. But in a lot of places (not sure about Canada) if police catch you with spray paint and hands covered with paint, that right there is enough suspicion to hold you.

  5. Your suggestion to put a deposit on spray cans reminds me of Chris Rock's joke that we don't need gun control, we need bullet control - there won't be a problem with stray shots when bullets cost $5k a piece.

  6. @Danny -- Chris Rock is an excellent economist!

  7. Its not only inconvenient for artists to take cans to a proper disposal it's extremely risky. They are incriminating. Cops will (and do) match the colors used on the freshly painted walls with the color of the cans. It sucks but the decision between littering and proper disposal is a no brainer for the artist. even if they feel bad about littering the safest option is to ditch the can asap


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