Note: This was written at the end of December, shortly after our return from Europe. As other activities and interests took priority, we set it aside to think about and revise before sending it. We're sending it now because the subject continues to interest us; we invite comments and discussion.
While we traveled through Europe we were surprised and dismayed by all the graffiti we noticed - along the railroad tracks, on railroad cars, and in the poorer parts of cities large and small. So graffiti is more widespread than we had thought. We wanted to write about it, but first we wanted to understand it.
Needless to say, tourist books and information centers don't mention graffiti. We had to wait until our return to the U.S. to find books on the subject in English. Some books treat graffiti as art, and while we agree some of the stylized monograms are quite striking, we could not believe graffiti was simply the work of young artists -- as far as we know, nobody was buying graffiti. The evidence we saw of street murals revealed that these are sometimes painted on walls in order to preempt graffiti taggers.
We thought that to learn about graffiti we would have to learn about inner city youth, so we looked for books about street gangs, settling on The American Street Gang: Its Nature, Prevalence, and Control by Malcolm W. Klein, who teaches sociology at USC, and published by Oxford, 1995. We feel Klein's book is well-written, and reflects a good understanding. It has enabled us to place our observations of graffiti in a context of gang activity.
Klein defines a street gang as consisting generally of youths, aged 11 to 20, with most of age 17-18, who associate for a feeling of protection against a perceived threat, and whose members frequently engage in criminal activities, though not necessarily as a gang-sponsored activity.
He rejects the currently favored law enforcement position that street gangs are drug gangs; a major discriminant is that street gangs do not have the stability of membership, strong leadership, or internal cohesion to function successfully as business organizations. In addition, he notes that the popularity of large gang databases by law enforcement tends to make the identification of street gangs as organized criminal gangs a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Klein decries the small amount of quantitative sociological research done on the prevention, formation, and maintenance of street gangs, but does describe some interesting work which shows that strengthening the internal cohesion of a gang tends to increase the amount of crimes (or serious crimes) committed by gang members, while weakening the cohesion tends to decrease the amount of crimes (perhaps by reducing the size of the gang).
Factors affecting the establishment of street gangs are the presence, in an urban community, of minority youths who are left out of society, as evidenced by poverty, unemployment, and disfunctional families. The gang coalesces to provide a sense of identity and protection which is not found elsewhere. The gang is strengthened by the presence of enemies, such as other gangs or the police. Virtually all gangs are ethnically homogeneous, although there are exceptions.
Klein distinguishes between territorial boundary marking by established street gangs, and tagging. The tag often consists of a three-letter acronym, stylistically rendered in spray paint; the acronym generally stands for some term of identification of the tagger. Some taggers may commit no other antisocial acts, while others join or start street gangs -- in which case the tagging may change to territorial marking.
A key fact about both street gangs and graffiti is that both are spreading at a nearly exponential rate. Virtually every city in the world with street gangs has graffiti, and cities with graffiti often develop gang activity later. So graffiti may be regarded as a precursor of gang activity. The number of American cities with gangs has risen from about 300 in the late 1980s to at least 800 in the mid 1990s when the book was written; some estimates are as high as 1100 cities. Moreover, the number of gangs per city is increasing. Whereas gang activity was previously confined to cities over 100,000 in population, it is now prevalent in cities of 10,000 inhabitants.
Klein confirms that street gangs have spread to many cities around the world, although his information is anecdotal rather than statistical. We have already read of Europe's problems with urban underclasses (in French, "exclus"). The minorities are different in Europe -- Turkish or Maghreb rather than African-American or Mexican -- but the other factors for gang formation are present.
Klein points out that one tactic often used to counter graffiti is for businesses or civic groups to designate walls as art places, inviting youths to create murals. He believes this only increases the amount of painted wall space, without discouraging the taggers.
The reason we think the whole topic deserves a special report is that, after reading Klein's book, we are convinced that the standard governmental responses to gangs and graffiti are in fact counterproductive and tend to exacerbate the problem. Instead, we agree with Klein that governments need to find ways to weaken gangs by helping individual gang members to become part of the mainstream society.
We also feel that the presence of graffiti in European cities is an indicator of urban disfunction, related to the presence of unemployed urban underclass youth, and related to the growth of urban street gangs and criminality worldwide. Our observations of European police forces is that they may tend to copy the approaches of American police forces, and strengthen gang cohesion by declaring war on gangs, instead of working on the social problems that create the underclass.
Incidentally, Klein believes one source of the chronic urban youth unemployment is the disappearance of factory labor. The service-oriented jobs which have replaced manual labor require skills not possessed by the urban underclass youths. If this conclusion is correct (and he offers less to back it up) then it would be ironic if factory life first led to the expansion of cities in the nineteenth century and then the loss of urban factories in the twentieth century is leading to the disease of cities and the rapid growth of street gangs and accompanying crime.