By Brian Pape AIA
Graffiti is nothing new to New York City, or other cities around the world. But we wanted to know more about the recent activity in the West Village that we reported last month. WestView News followed up by asking the 6th Precinct of the New York Police Department to help us understand what is going on.
When we contacted the 6th Precinct, we were patched over to Alfred Baker, the Director of Media in the Office of the Deputy Commissioner. Mr. Baker then coordinated an interview with Captain Stephen Spataro, the Commanding Officer of the 6th precinct, and their Neighborhood Coordination Officers (NCO), including Sergeant Dan Houlahan, Officer Pete Plessa, and Officer Pat Defonzo.
The picture they painted for me of how they work with the community to fight graffiti offered some valuable information.
When new graffiti appears in the neighborhood, one of their officers will visit with the property owner or managing agent to ascertain how to deal with the new graffiti that has been observed. If the graffiti was sanctioned by the owner, then nothing else is done by the police, since it is a first amendment issue of self-expression that owners may display. In the case of the restaurant on Bleecker Street near Christopher Street, the plywood covering of the windows during remodeling was sanctioned by the owner to be painted. However, the very offensive obscene tag that was added on top of the original artwork was not sanctioned, and the owner had it painted over.
On the other hand, for large billboard type signage painted on walls in historic districts such as ours, even property owners must submit for a signage permit and comply with LPC guidelines. Therefore, the large “Texas” painted on the wall above the shuttered Riviera Café at W. 4th Street would have needed such a permit for the owner (and there is no record of such an application). If this was a graffiti artist’s work, then it is clearly illegal.
The police department takes graffiti very seriously, because illegal graffiti degrades properties and a neighborhood. Graffiti that is left untouched only invites more graffiti, and that is indicative of neglect of a property and a neighborhood.
In the case of the graffiti on the wall spelling “Magic Trick”, that work was reported by a bystander while in progress in the dead of night, earlier this summer. The police responded to the call, and were able to arrest the person doing the painting. That is not always the case, of course, since they often have lookouts to warn them when the police are approaching, and they all scatter so the police can’t catch them.
The 6th precinct has filed 107 complaints this year about graffiti, and have been able to make 25 separate arrests. The police department keeps a citywide database of graffiti, so that they can compare previous artists, tags, and arrests.
What happens when the police do catch and arrest someone in the act of vandalism? Graffiti is considered a relatively minor offense, meaning that they will probably not serve any prison time or even be held overnight in a jail. Instead, they receive a desk appearance ticket for a day in court, and will probably get their case dismissed with the provision that there be no follow-up arrests for this offense in the near future. In some cases, the court may require some community service time of the offender.
What happens to the graffiti? The 6th precinct works with the community to get the graffiti cleaned up, and reported about 33 cleanups this year of various graffiti locations.
Who does the cleanup, and who supplies the equipment? For private property cases, owners of the property often simply paint over or clean up themselves. But there are other factors at work as well. In 1999, the City of New York implemented the first full-time free service for graffiti cleanup offered to business and residential properties. Under the Graffiti Free NYC program, complaints of graffiti are filed with 311 and the City’s full-time crew schedules the appropriate cleanup, either by painting over or by power-washing. The program is coordinated by the city Economic Development Commission, the Department of Sanitation, and the Mayor’s Office. Unfortunately, it is not functioning currently due to COVID cuts. So it’s back to the community.
One situation that was conveyed to me was about an elderly lady who in previous years had simply hired a painter to come to paint over graffiti, with no complaints to the police. But now she is not able to continue with that, and her neighbors have volunteered to help with the cleanup. In many cases, police officers have voluntarily chipped in from their own pocket to provide supplies for a cleanup. Sometimes, other groups such as the 13th St. Alliance and the 14th Street BID have donated supplies for cleanup.
Anyone can donate paint and supplies by contacting the 6th precinct and Police Officer Pete Plessa, who will coordinate your donation.
Learning about the generosity of our neighbors and our community police officers to help property owners keep their premises from being degraded, it is heartening to know that there is a way for all of us to help.