So the election season has rolled on, with the first big electoral policy initiative out of the incumbent Labour govt being war on taggers.
Obviously this is an image-correction maneuver by Clark. The electorate are sick of tagging, so it is valuable to be seen to be doing something. But a lot of people have missed that the new law is really intended for adult offenders; youth who tag are going to be dealt with exactly the same way (see the FAQ at the bottom of the press release for more).
The big impact on the kids is going to be restrictions on the sale of spray cans to teens. Leaving aside the rights and wrongs of such a restriction, it just doesn’t sound very effective in the face of an army of disenfranchised 13-year-olds with marker pens, older cousins and nothing to do with their time. Still, the FAQ has an answer to that:
It has been suggested that spray paint taggers will all start scratching glass or using marker pens. However, tagging has its own internal boundaries and ‘culture’. As spray paint is the chosen tool of this ‘culture’ it is expected that the movement to other types of graffiti implement will be small and we would expect to see an overall reduction in graffiti.
Heck, it could work. Tagging doesn’t have deep roots in this country anyway.
Overall it doesn’t seem to me like much change is possible from this legislation. It’s certainly not an important social problem. (Don’t get me started on that Broken Windows nonsense. And no, tagging is not a gateway crime. The taggers of today don’t become the home invaders of tomorrow.) No doubt some policy wonk has worked hard on it, but ultimately it just amounts to a flag in the ground saying Labour is not surrendering middle NZ without a fight.
Anyway. I’ve had a few interesting conversations about this recently. Tagging as an activity has always sat uneasily with me. Full-fledged graf art, I have a lot of love for that. Witty and weird little slogans scrawled in public places are a bonus in our urban landscape. Tagging, the runty little sideshow of graffiti, has never won me over. It isn’t the act itself that bugs me, but the thoughtless aesthetic placement of so much tagging. I mean, tagging some suburban garage? Tagging the side of a white suburban house? This doltish placement has always annoyed me. But the aesthetics of graffiti and tagging are subjective. Does graffiti add value or subtract value to an environment? Well, that depends on the graffiti, the environment, and the person. It’s an impossible equation.
It gets even curlier when you start talking about rights. Do suburban house owners have the right to a crisp, clean garage? Really? What are such property rights built on? Aren’t all such rights dependent on having a fair society which values all its members? Where does value even come from in our society? Do we have the right to clean walls?
I’m very wary of romanticising wall-scrawling. There’s some incredible stuff that happens through words and art on our streets – does anyone know what the “Gayskins” tag that turned up all over town late last year means? – but also there’s a bunch of selfish people who lack any empathy for those who have to cope with their actions.
End result, I guess: Labour’s big public stand is pandering to the talkback masses and that doesn’t make me happy. (Let’s not forget that this comes on the heels of a boy being murdered for tagging and the disgraceful way in which many elected leaders responded.) But if teens end up having trouble buying spray cans by themselves, well, that’s not going to cause me to lose any sleep over damaged civil rights.
Keith Ng has a good piece on the War on Taggers over at Public Address