A gateway crime

Lee Jones
January 29, 2010
By Lee Jones
Many people, including some police officers, feel investigating graffiti is a waste of time because, “it’s just kids messing around.” This simple response shows a lack of understanding and knowledge of the subject matter. Dedicated officers who investigate graffiti know it is associated with rampant abuse of drugs and alcohol and other criminal activity, including break and enter, arson, theft, robbery, sexual assault, drug trafficking and production and possession of weapons and child pornography. With almost nine years of experience investigating graffiti crime I have become very familiar with the dark side of the subculture. To simply put up a tag, a true graffiti writer will steal his tools, spray paint, markers, etc ( it’s called “racking”) and illegally consume alcohol and drugs before heading out (it’s common to see “drunk” or “high” written next to a tag, especially if it’s sloppily done, to excuse the poor technique).

Many people, including some police officers, feel investigating graffiti is a waste of time because, “it’s just kids messing around.” This simple response shows a lack of understanding and knowledge of the subject matter.

Dedicated officers who investigate graffiti know it is associated with rampant abuse of drugs and alcohol and other criminal activity, including break and enter, arson, theft, robbery, sexual assault, drug trafficking and production and possession of weapons and child pornography.

With almost nine years of experience investigating graffiti crime I have become very familiar with the dark side of the subculture. To simply put up a tag, a true graffiti writer will steal his tools, spray paint, markers, etc ( it’s called “racking”) and illegally consume alcohol and drugs before heading out (it’s common to see “drunk” or “high” written next to a tag, especially if it’s sloppily done, to excuse the poor technique).

They will also break and enter or trespass to access the target property.

Then there’s the placement of the tag itself – mischief – and assault or worse if the writer encounters a rival tagger or crew. As you can clearly see, one act results in several illegal activities.

When I first started conducting graffiti search warrants (I have executed 36 since 2003), I came across several writers with no apparent connection to each other drawing the same symbols – a severed hand with the finger tips cut off and a combination of hooks and nails sticking in and piercing the flesh. Disturbing images indeed. More troubling was the common theme amongst these unrelated writers.

One attempted suicide while in custody by trying to drown himself in a cell toilet. Another asked, while being placed in a detention area interview room, if anyone had killed themselves there. When I asked why he asked, he calmly explained how easy it would be to bash his temple on the corner of the table.

Professor Graham Martin of the University of Queensland studied young taggers in 2003 (Family and individual characteristics of a community sample of adolescents who graffiti). I have quoted segments from this study below. Even before reading it, I was already beginning to see a pattern of behaviour that appeared consistent with graffiti writers. This allowed me to draw my own conclusions that a writer, particularly a hardcore, experienced one, is more likely to be an intelligent male from a single parent family who didn’t do well academically, is not involved in sports or extracurricular activities and has antisocial and illegal behaviour. I had even started to refer to graffiti crime as a gateway crime for youth. The objective of the study was to examine the covariates of graffiti behaviour in adolescents and determine its independence of graffiti behaviour from antisocial behaviour.

The study had 2,603 adolescents from a community sample complete a questionnaire which measured perceived academic performance, general family functioning, parental care, overprotection and criticism, suicidal thoughts and behaviours and other psychological factors (e.g. depression) and behaviours (e.g. antisocial behaviour and drug use). The differences between these variables for both boys and girls were examined in four group comparisons:

Graffiti versus no graffiti;

Low antisocial behaviour with graffiti versus without graffiti;

Serious antisocial behaviour with and without graffiti;

Extreme antisocial behaviour with and without graffiti.

Significant differences were found between the graffiti and no-graffiti groups in both girls and boys on all variables measured. The study concluded that adolescents who graffiti are likely to also experience a number of other family, parental, behavioural and psychological problems. There was also a significant difference between youth that graffiti and those who do not.

The study’s findings supported my own layman’s observations. Particularly interesting was the prevalence of graffiti and antisocial behaviour in boys and girls with a mean age of 13 years.

Of the 2,603 13 year olds involved with the study, 169 (12.3 per cent) of the boys and 121 (10.9 per cent) of the girls stated “I have graffitied (tagged) things in public places.” Furthermore girls were less likely to be involved with serious and extreme antisocial behaviour (ASB) than the boys.

Of the 169 males that committed graffiti, 124 were involved in serious and extreme antisocial behaviours; of the 121 girls, 47 were involved in serious and extreme antisocial behaviour.

Graffiti offenders in Saskatoon I’ve dealt with over the last nine years have been linked to arson, theft, assaults, break and enter, possession of child pornography, drugs and weapons, grow ops and murder. Many have also exhibited behaviour that would likely be assessed as clinically definable personality disorders. On one search warrant I found the blood book used as a record for every time the graffiti writer cut himself. During his interview he admitted he had an addictive personality and that doing graffiti gave him as much release as drugs and cutting but he felt it was less harmful to himself. Even when you look at graffiti crew names one sees a glimpse of its dark side, with names like TWR (The Wall Rapists) and RSO (Rugged Sex Offender). When dealing with one graffiti writer’s parents while executing a search warrant, I was compelled to have them view the drawing which depicted the taggers mother and the text “KILL MUMMY” and other disturbing imagery and text.

In the last three years I have seen more and more graffiti writers joining formal street gangs, increasing their involvement with other criminal offences.

The bottom line is investing time and resources in investigating graffiti crime will pay dividends in the end because you decrease other, previously undetected criminal offences that the writers are committing. You also increase the opportunity for early intervention and access to councillors and psychologists to treat undiagnosed clinical personality disorders.

An example of a graffiti investigation paying dividends would be a case (and I could list many more) involving a gang graffiti search warrant where we seized not only matching samples but also drugs. However it was during the warned statement that the real advantage of this investigation came through. The suspect, a 17 year old native male, was a four year Native Syndicate Street Gang member who confessed within 40 seconds to placing the gang graffiti.

He then provided an intelligence goldmine of everything you wanted to know about the street gang on video for a further 25 minutes. This was of great assistance to our street crimes unit.

Saskatoon has achieved a 16 per cent reduction in graffiti in 2009 compared to 2008 figures. The anti-graffiti unit has laid more than 1,000 criminal charges since its creation in June 2006. These investigations have assisted several other Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) units, including street crimes and break and enter, providing key information that would not have been available had resources not been provided to investigate graffiti crime.

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