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A few weeks ago, @paulaabowles shared an article on the Criminology Facebook page which posed the question of whether graffiti is art or crime. My response was art. And like all art, not all variations, interpretations or styles are for everyone. I know I can look at some graffiti and be quite taken aback at the brightness, boldness and creativity which shines through. I can also look at some and go ‘eugh’. However I have the same reactions to various classical and well-known pieces. My unrefined self does not get all the hype about a number of Picasso’s works (possibly all the ones I have seen). Nevertheless this is the beauty of art: it is down to individual taste.
So for me, I was fairly certain on my opinions and convictions towards graffiti as an art form, and as an example of the CJS further stigmatising and criminalisation young people’s behaviours: something I am certain we are all quite familiar with at this stage in our criminological journey. However those beliefs and informed views were put to the test over the Bank Holiday (BH) Weekend, and in all honesty I think I am still trying to get to grips with them. It is different now…. It happened to me.
Some context: as those of you who have read various blog posts from myself will no doubt remember, my partner runs a small kiosk near one of the Royal Parks in London. Often during the weekends and summer months, I provide an extra pair of hands to help clean and serve during the busier periods. And as a result of the pandemic, my partner finds themselves going from a team of 4 down to just them, and me when I am able to support: this was the case for the BH Weekend. Off we popped, down to London for a day of serving hotdogs, drinks and ice creams. However our day was thrown off course by some ‘ugly’ graffiti all over the front of the kiosk.
My partner was angry, and felt personally attacked (not really sure by who- but guess that’s besides the point). It is not the first time the kiosk has had graffiti on it, but it is the first time I have seen it in person and witnessed my partner’s response. Rather than starting our working day and opening up, we had to clean the graffiti off. My partner set to this: just over 3 hours later some of it has been removed, but so has some of the kiosk’s paint. It looks a mess. We are now at midday and we cannot afford to remain closed and keep cleaning. We have lost 3 hours of trading time to try and remove it, only to remove some of it and some of the kiosk’s paint. I am informed that we shall need to go to B&Q to try and find some graffiti remover: Capitalism wins again! But seeing my partner cleaning for 3 hours, losing the trading hours and for this end result: I can’t help but feel angry, frustrated and in want of some kind of justice. It’s different now… it happened to me.
But what realistically would justice be in the scenario? What do I actually want as a result? I have no idea. I asked my partner who said they just wanted them ‘not to do it’. It is private property, will my partner call the police? Nope: just nuisance annoying behaviour, but not much anyone can do about it. I feel less inclined to call it art. I like my partner’s use of ‘nuisance’ behaviour: it feels very accurate. I do not think my partner was targeted, I think it was available as a surface to be used for that individual or individuals to express themselves. But I am shaken in my previously held convictions. Shouldn’t something be done. We lost 3 hours of trading, the kiosk now needs to be repainted and we shall need to purchase some graffiti remover. All for some expression of ‘art’? Shouldn’t there be some kind of repercussion?
I am not too sure. I also know when this has happened before, and I have not been present to witness the impact it has on my partner and the kiosk I have been very nonchalant about it. ‘Oh dear, that’s frustrating’, ‘ah well, never mind’. But being there and seeing it: I view it differently. And this is something many of us come to grips with when considering hypothetical moral situations and larger ethical questions. We think we will act one way, but if it happened to us: it is quite possible our opinions, informed views and beliefs would change. I still think graffiti is art, but I am not so convinced in my previous assertation that it is not a crime…
Almost every day I walk my puppy in the local park. Most days I go around 6-7am when there’s barely anyone around. He’s made a couple of dog friends and we often stop for a chat. It’s tranquil and calm. I’ll listen to an audio book or the birds. The dog mother of Hazel the Italian greyhound tells me which birds are calling.
Usually in the evening we go to a huge field so he can quite literally run rings around me. A few weeks ago, we broke tradition and went to the local park in the late afternoon. I had spent the entire day in front of a screen and needed a break. We got to the park and it was different – it looked different, sounded different, and felt different. The sun was out so of course it was busier, and as you’d expect after school there were children playing on the skate park and the playground. There were about a dozen dogs in the dog park (it’s not as fancy as it sounds – just a patch of grass where the dogs dig holes and fetch sticks). Prince was a bit overwhelmed and so was I – at this point I hadn’t seen so many people in one place since pre-covid!
I soon learned that I couldn’t let Prince off his lead on a Monday because the mess from the weekend (even before the outdoor rule of six) would not yet be cleaned and he would eat everything. One Monday he walked an entire lap of the park with a croissant in his mouth that was bigger than his head. Another day he picked up half a joint of cooked meat. I noticed the signs of people having good (and not so good) times, particularly after sunny weekends. Sometimes when it’s warm there’s groups of men fishing, pulling all-nighters, smoking cannabis and drinking. Once, we followed a trail of blood around the path and although it could just as easily come from a child after a fall, the empty, broken alcohol bottles led me to imagine scenarios of violence.
During my visits to the park over the last few months I have seen evidence of alcohol and drug use, and possible violence. In May last year, there were reports of gunshots fired, leading to a man being arrested on suspicion of possessing a firearm. Quite worrying considering I live only a couple of hundred metres away. There have also been incidents involving youths wielding baseball bats and setting fires before attacking firefighters. I had a look at the crime data for the area but Greater Manchester Police have had some IT issues affecting data from 2019 onwards (that’s another story…), however older data showed a pattern of anti-social behavior, arson and a few violent offences as well. This is all very different to the place of tranquility I visit daily with the puppy.
The next day we returned for our early morning walk and I reflected upon the changes in the character of the park and the actors and events that create this. I started thinking about criminology and the environment around us, about how places can change so much throughout the day and across the seasons. I thought about situational crime prevention. My work brain truly switched on and I stopped hearing the birds and started seeing the CCTV and the lighting. I thought to myself that I would not go to the park when it gets dark but if I did, I would stay in the lit areas where the cameras could see me. I would stay away from the groups of fishermen because they were sure to be drunk and stoned by nightfall. I haven’t seen them behave in a threatening manner although I have overheard verbal threats. They are usually asleep when I walk by but as a single woman I’d think twice about walking past a group of lively, drunk men at night.
This local park is just one example based on my observations, but the question is, is it a criminogenic space? Or am I criminologist who sees things of criminological interest in everything, everywhere? Or a woman who constantly assesses personal safety? Luckily I haven’t had enough thinking time and space to ponder these questions otherwise this would have been a long read.