graffiti murals in downtown new york city

Does Graffiti-Free NYC Work?

In a world that has a hard time differentiating between vandalism and public art, New York is just one of many cities that have decided to turn muralists into the enemy in a War on Graffiti. While a kid painting a middle finger on a bridge seems like a long ways away from artists like Saber or Seen, the line isn’t as blurry or the difference so large.

To address the issue, New York started up Graffiti-Free NYC, a government agency that responds to graffiti complaints with a free removal service for all five boroughs. Some neighbourhoods have had over 400 complaints per year. Naturally a homeowner shouldn’t have to pay to have their door repainted if it’s been graffitied against their will or without their knowledge, so the program’s free aspect can help people who are essentially victims in a thoughtless crime.

Obviously unwanted graffiti should be removed, but NYC’s specific motivations are somewhat hazardous, perhaps even dangerous to the city and its residents. In their mission statement, Graffiti-Free NYC argues they “enhance overall neighborhood aesthetics to improve the business climate, increase property values and create goodwill throughout New York City’s local communities.” And while the program also helps “create challenging and skill-enhancing jobs for low-to-moderate income residents,” the reasons for the program seem to only encourage the gentrification of New York that’s harming many different communities. By wanting to “improve the business climate” and “increase property value” isn’t simply hurting many residents faced with impossible rent increases, it also maintains the idea that “art” and “business” exist as polar opposites with a clear winner: commerce.

While New York claims on their website that “it is the current policy of Graffiti-Free NYC not to remove murals,” for a program that has removed upwards of 170 million square feet of street art, I find it hard to believe that all murals have survived the program on top of the program’s clear goals of making NYC a public art-free institution, unless of course the public art somehow encourages or reflects how commerce is helping the city.

Artists are finding solutions, ways to avoid the Graffiti Squad, but these may actually be making the art more dangerous. If a city is meant to protect and serve its citizens, the Graffiti Squad is a perfect example of how legislation can do more harm than good. In one article at Animal New York, artists recommend going high, to hard to reach places where it creates a safety concern for the people paid to remove the piece. Currently, cleaners can only reach about 35 feet in the air. Above that, artists can still have a clear canvas.

Graffiti-Free NYC represents a good idea that needs serious re-evaluation. The program is necessary, a means for victims of vandalism to get the support they need. But the program also puts graffiti artists at risk and perpetuates ideas that are harming New Yorkers, like driving up property values to push out low and middle income families. A compromise needs to happen between muralists and street artists who do good work outside a corporate structure and people’s desire to live in a beautiful city without vandalism.