Tagging, part 2: how a signature can lead to prison

The previous entry was about some apects of social attitudes to tagging; however, it didn’t mention one of the most important aspect of how people think about tagging – that it constitutes a crime.

Precisely which crime depends upon the jurisdiction you are in. In Victoria, it could fall under the Summary Offences Act, or if you are caught carrying something like a marker pen or a spray can, you might be prosecuted under the new Graffiti Prevention Act (see my previous post in September 2008, called ‘Clamping down’). Some jurisdictions have graffiti-specific legislation, like Victoria’s new laws, while others prosecute tagging and other graffiti activities under more generic headings.

But of course the thing is that calling tagging (or any other graffiti-related activity) a crime sets off a whole series of consequences. First of all, it categorises the activity as something that ‘society’ should be concerned about, should condemn, and should try to prevent. Next, and directly following on from that, it perm its the involvement of the police and other crimino-legal agencies and institutions, and authorises them to ‘respond’ to graffiti. Relatedly, it allows councils to create local laws which authorise the removal of graffiti (consider the fact that councils are compelled to have ‘graffiti management plans’, mainly because graffiti is considered criminal, but not ‘public urination reduction plans’, or ‘bag snatching abatement plans’). Subsequently, if an individual is discovered engaging in a graffiti-related activity, such as tagging, by these crimino-legal agencies (most likely the police), then the categorisation of tagging as ‘criminal’ means that they can be arrested, charged, and prosecuted. Once that’s done, then further consequences follow: an on-the-spot fine, perhaps, or an appearance at the Childrens or Magistrates Court.

Many people assume that when individuals get prosecuted under laws prohibiting graffiti-related activities the punishments available are not harsh. Some might assume the penalties are ‘lenient’.  (After all, it’s only a property crime, right? It’s not as if we are talking about interpersonal violence.) Others might say that the available penalties are ‘not harsh enough’ (and would argue that the effects of property crimes accumulate such that their overall effects are considerable).

So perhaps it’s useful to be reminded that the punishments are not ‘lenient’ or ‘not harsh enough’. A couple of days ago, an 18-year old girl, Cheyene Back, in Sydney was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for writing on a wall in a cafe. (Check out here what the Everfresh boys had to say about this. And click here to read a thoughtful opinion piece about the case by Kurt Iveson.)

According to one news report (thanks for sending the link, Noah!), she wrote her ‘nickname’ (which I presume means her tag) on what’s described as the ‘public wall’ of the Hyde Park Cafe. I’m not sure what ‘public wall’ means – is it the outer wall, or does it mean something else? ‘Public’ wall sounds like ‘legal’ wall, but given that the action led to her being ‘caught’ with ‘a black texta at the scene’, that surely can’t be right. (Perhaps someone from Sydney who knows the Hyde Park Cafe could enlighten me as to what the ‘public wall is…)

Whatever it is, Cheyene has been convicted of the offence of ‘intentionally destroying or damaging property’, and she will go to jail as a result. And all through the chain of consequences set up by the categorisation of the act of writing one’s name on property belonging to another as ‘criminal’.

5 comments so far

  1. karen on

    Not really sure why it’s called a public wall, the Hyde Park Cafe is a privately owned establishment in a public park. The wall Cheyene tagged was the base of one of the walls of the cafe. See this photo:
    Cafe in Hyde Park

  2. imagestoliveby on

    Thanks for sending the photo. Maybe ‘public wall’ simply means the wall that faces outward rather than an internal one? Still seems like an odd term to me though!

  3. Fitzroyalty on

    What utter twaddle. No one has the right to damage or interfere with someone else’s property. End of story. I don’t agree with sending people to gaol for non-violent crimes, but this is irrelevant. As Iveson states in the article you mention, “most people find tags far uglier and more annoying than colourful pieces”. I don’t want ugly meaningless rubbish attached to my property without my consent, and neither does anyone else. And I’m sick of hearing whinging morons making excuses why they are special and should not be held responsible for their behaviour and its consequences.

  4. SPARCS on

    There are certainly a lot of interesting thoughts in this, and the last entry. While I do concede that there are great tags and hand styles (some reaching the level of calligraphic), the most for my mind are not done with their artistic merit in mind. While this in itself may say something of the feelings and thoughts of the tagger, one could also say the same of any “antisocial” behavior, including I would say, interpersonal violence. My least favorite manifestation of this is scribing. There seems an unfavorable balance in the art:vandalism ratio regarding this one.

    It is an interesting, and quite valid point that you raise regarding stencils as a form of tagging. There have been a few artists who used pictographic tag, Bones being one, I myself toyed with a few. Indeed it has been my wish to find “that” image. One which can become almost iconic, and certainly recognisable. Does it change its validity because I apply some self imposed moral code on where this image might or might not go?

    I respect you decision to approve “Fitzroyalty”‘s comment. Though I find it typical of the common knee jerk reaction to this topic. While Fitzroy has been brought up, one of the “problems” with graffiti is quoted as the “broken window” effect. The feeling that an area has been abandoned, that lawlessness is rampant. Is it then a paradox that it would have been instrumental in Fitzroy attaining its “cool” status (and thus high property prices), much like the noisy live band scene and bars???

  5. techydude on

    tagging & graf are obviously both illegal, thus the only issue at stake here, i think, is the ‘merit’ & ‘meaning/message’ of a tag vs almost any kind of mural or even stencil or poster.

    in my opinion *most* tagging is mindless drivel by equally mindless cretins with zero artistic merit or integrity or meaning that _is_ the human equivalent of dogs pissing ‘their’ territory.

    i’m referring to the 14yo’s who tag at 6am having probably lied to mum & dad that they were going to footy training or whatever, as quite distinct from artists who have something to say. it’s a very rare day i see interesting or intriguing tags in a sea of not-even-try-hard banality.

    by contrast a graffiti mural of almost any kind can often be a joy to behold. even on my own wall. tho my neighbours might disagree with me there 😉


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