Asheville Police launch graffiti crackdown

In Asheville, graffiti is a either a bane or a boon, depending on your perspective. Some see it as a serious problem, a symptom of urban decay. To others, it’s means for self-expression, a form of so-called “urban art.” For many local businesses and residents, graffiti is just a nuisance crime that adds an unwelcome cleanup bill — and one that the local police give a fairly low priority to. Until now, that is.

Earlier today, the Asheville Police Department announced the arrest of three people—John Molnar, 24; Brandon Teffner, 17; and Jesse Scott-Zinni, 18—all accused of “graffiti related charges” in the downtown area. According to the press release, the APD has recently formed an internal task force empowered to “target the graffiti problem plaguing the downtown area.” Equipped with digital cameras and a growing database of known “tags” and suspects, the task force has begun surveillance operations “to apprehend persons involved in causing graffiti damage.”

Is this a true crack down on graffiti? To find out, Xpress spoke with APD spokesperson Capt. Tim Splain.

Mountain Xpress: When did the anti-graffiti initiative start, and what started it?

Capt. Tim Splain: It’s been a topic of conversation for a very long time, and we wanted to formalize what our effort was. We’ve always arrested people for damaging private property or defacing public property. But, with such an increase in visible graffiti in the downtown area, we wanted to make sure that we had some kind of formal mechanism in place to enforce those laws. Our patrol officers are out in the field every day, and they see it. They know what’s already out there, and they see the new stuff, and can account for it much more readily than anyone else in the department.

Xpress: How are they addressing the graffiti problem?

Splain: What we’ve done is to supply them with digital cameras so that they can document the graffiti on a daily basis. They can catalog it, which allows us to compile a database of tags and graffiti work. We’ll also be doing surveillance work, so that we can not only catch people doing it, but so that we can backtrack and attribute their tag or symbol for however many cases we have outstanding.

Xpress: It that a fairly reliable method? It seems like there would be problems with just identifying a vandal from just a style or a symbol.

Splain: What we find is that most people either take pictures of their artwork, or they have “tag books,” which contain hand drawings and sketches, in their possession. They may also have them in their residence, which is why we’re looking at building these databases. If we have enough probable cause, we can get search warrants based on the arrests. With a warrant, we can see if they have tag-books, stencils or other materials there that are used to do the tagging.

Xpress: What kind of sentences or penalties are being faced by people who are arrested for graffiti?

Splain: It’s a fairly minor misdemeanor. Generally speaking, people get probation for it, and it doesn’t usually carry an active jail sentence. But, the thing we’re concerned with getting is the restitution that can be imposed by the courts. That can help the business owners and residents get reimbursed for the cleanup of their property. If you are a downtown business owner who is diligent about cleaning up after your business gets tagged or marked, graffiti becomes an ongoing cost. Especially for some of the locations that are the favorite spots that are painted on or tagged all the time. It can be a significant ongoing cost, and we want to allow the courts to help them offset that.

Xpress: Is it art?

Splain: To some it’s art, and there is some legitimately impressive work out there. But, if you are doing that work on other people’s property where they don’t want you to do it, it’s a crime. And, for visitors and a lot of residents, it gives the air of the city being unsafe. It seems like there isn’t control here. We want to help with that as best we can. Our job is to enforce the laws, and damaging and defacing property is a legitimate crime. We’re going to try to reduce the visible graffiti in the downtown area, and anywhere else in the city.

Xpress: This must put the APD in an awkward position. On one hand, there are probably many in the community that are supportive of what they see as genuine urban art. On the other hand, there must be constant complaints from businesses and residents who are desperately trying to keep people from painting on their buildings.

Splain: That’s absolutely correct. I’ve worked and served on downtown task forces and commissions, and the one thing you come to recognize is that there are plenty of people who would love to have a forum for this kind of art. Many of us in the police department support the idea of a designated area for this kind of art, and even contests or things like that. We would welcome some legitimate forum for people to do this kind of thing. But, what we can’t support is indiscriminate damage to other people’s property.

Xpress: Are you concerned at all that some people will criticize you for putting so much effort into catching graffiti artists when there are other, more pressing crimes that could benefit from added manpower and investigation.

Splain: That’s the double-edged sword that we face every day. Just because we pull people over for running red lights doesn’t mean that we aren’t also trying to catch drug dealers and murderers. We dedicate the majority of our resources towards solving those serious crimes. But the one thing that’s been shown in many national studies is that when you don’t deal with the quality of life issues and nuisance crimes, the other serious crimes escalate. There’s a perception that there’s a lack of social control. When New York City did a big crackdown on graffiti and other minor crimes, it actually helped to reduce their overall crime issues throughout the cities. We can’t pick and choose every crime, but this is a crime that is in the public eye. It causes a negative perception our downtown area.

— Steve Shanfelt, A&E reporter


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11 thoughts on “Asheville Police launch graffiti crackdown

  1. zen

    I am one of the people who sees the majority of grafitti as ‘genuine urban art,’ and in doing so photograph a lot of the tags that’s out there, putting them up online to share with others. To think that my appreciation is a part of the database of crackdown and arrest saddens me.

    Funny thing about tagging, however, is the authority’s assumption that one person who tags a certain way is an exclusive domain of a single person. Many tag artists are part of a group (MOMSlike) and can you really arrest/charge/harass one person for other’s actual ‘property damage.’

  2. decay?

    If the APD want to do something to make people feel safer in downtown thye should look at the ever increasing population of vagrants, crackheads, and prostitutes that freuquent the downtown area. At anytime of the day an endless stream of traffic can be seen going in and out of Lee Walker Heights/ Hillcrest to purchase crack cocaine.
    I do agree that it is wrong to deface private property. But the erronious concern that grafitti makes people feel ‘unsafe’ is unfounded. I believe that it enhances the attraction to downtown more then the hourdes of drug addicted alcoholics that frequent the downtown area. The downtown exits of I-240 have become regular spots for panhandlers. Haywood Road has become a regular hangout for prostitutes and nothing is being done to stop them from detracting to the area. I agree that a venue needs to be created for these artists. If the city really wants to improve the look of the downtown area they need to look a little further then whats on the walls. Urban decay has very little to do with grafitti and more to with mismanagement. How much money was spent to put that annoying billboard(which is truely an eyesore) for the Asheville Art Museum, wouldn’t that money have been better spent giving these artist a venue for thier work and isn’t that what an art museum is for; an artist venue. I can’t remember the last time the Asheville Art Museum did anything to draw me into thier doors. But, I can remember when the APD openly allowed Eagle Street to be a venue for every type of illegal crime to happen. Now they seem to be concerned with a little paint on the walls? This seems to be driven by the overpopulation of downtown with stores most Asheville residents can’t afford and condominiums most mountain residents wouldn’t be caught dead living in. Asheville is known nationwide as a center for the arts (check out the NY Times article). But Ashevilles newest artists aren’t creating art for the overpriced Blue Spiral or renting overpriced studio space in the once useless Riverside District. No, they are (at thier own expense) freely giving it to everyone. I applaud the APD for much of the work they are doing. I appreciate them being there, but they need to listen to the voices of everyone in our community, not just the business owners who line the council members pockets, before they begin ruining the lives of misguided youths. There is a large project underway to paint the pillars under I-240 on Lexington that may be crushed due to police profiling of these grafitti artist (who’s going to work on this project if they fear thier style is linked with some illegal work) and the fact that no one has stepped forward to provide significant funding for it. The APD and City Council would do wonders for community relations if they helped support this project. Many grafitti artist would gladly switch to paying mural jobs if there were more available, but they are forced into the dark because no one is funding mural projects that would give these artist a proper venue. Arresting people is not the way to solve this issue.

  3. I have extremely mixed feelings on the topic. On one hand, I could see getting pretty irritated if some jerk spray painted their name on my business or house, just because they liked the way it looked. On the other hand, the art in and around Carolina Lane, under some of the bridges and other semi-abandoned places is often the only real reason I visit those locations. (I don’t know anyone who lives in Carolina Lane anymore, or under a bridge, for that matter.) The history student in me also has a hard time forgetting that graffiti is one of the few literary sources we have from common people in the ancient world. Historically speaking, it’s one of the most relevant art forms there is. But, if someone tagged, say, my car, I’d be apt to forget that perspective and want the cops to catch the guy (or girl) and have the courts make them pay to repair the damage.

    I think that Splain makes a good point when he says that there should be a place for street art. It’d be much like the skateparks we have today, I suspect, which appear to have cut down on the “skateboarding is a crime” mentality.

  4. Cracking down on graffiti is easy, and it makes the simpletons like Mumpower believe the police department is “doing something” to the evil criminals.
    NY had a big problem with graffiti. They spent millions on cleaning it, fighting it whatever. None of it worked.
    It went away mostly on its own.

    It is a mostly response to a desperate world. A cry for help and attention.

  5. deidre

    i see most graffiti as a art. like the river distict, the graffiti is beautiful there.
    cracking down on the graffiti makes me angry and sad.

    pleassssssse, stop!
    gabe, 10 yrs.

  6. Philly got rid of their grafitti ‘problem’ by commissionaing entire areas to become big murals.

    Works better than jailing artists. Especially since that kind of grafitti has nothing whatsoever to do with gangs.

    But, then the cops wouldnt get to act like big guys…

  7. Logan

    the way i see it, graffiti is an art for sure…there are all these metal power boxes and empty ally ways nobody goes down….theres nothing interesting to look at unless its painted….when is the last time anyone was hurt by graffiti on a wall….NEVER…APD needs to suck it up….there needs to be more areas where it is legal….there are sculptures downtown…thats art too….just because APD stereotypes people that do graffiti they get arrested….WE ARENT CRIMINALS

  8. zach

    look people graffiti is never i say agin N.E.V.E.R. going away no matter how many cops arrest “crimanls” like me there will still be that kid in middle school to follow in my footsteps, and for asheville to wast its money on stoping us tells me that all this city cares about is making it look good of the fucking tourist. They dont care about the safty of the asheville people and if they would use our money on stoping drunk drivers or crack heads all the city cares about is the fall seson and the money they can rake in… fuck government and fuck the APD

  9. Anon

    If you make it “legal”, it won’t be “rebellious” to do it anymore.

  10. brebro

    Searching for recent stories about “Asheville Graffiti” brought me this article titled, “Asheville Police launch graffiti crackdown” then saw it was from 2007. I guess that crackdown wasn’t all that crackin’.

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