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ON CALIFORNIA

One Way to Lick Graffiti

March 19, 1995|PETER H. KING

He called himself Attila the Hun. His voice was full of menace. He had called to complain about a suggestion here that William A. Masters II, the nocturnal pedestrian who last month shot and killed a young tagger in Pacoima, perhaps had gone a bit overboard, that maybe gunplay wasn't the most attractive means for battling graffiti.

"You are either for graffiti," growled Hun, "or you are for shooting these scum. Anyway, I've got a list of 10 ideas to stop crime overnight. I'll send it along."

Promises. Promises. Sadly, Mr. Hun has failed to deliver, and I am left to plunge ahead with a humble proposal of my own--one that will end graffiti while cheating the vigilantes of their blood sport. The idea simply is this:

Ban spray paint.

Statewide.

Border to border.

*

While the merits should be obvious, prohibition would not come easy. Legislative action would be required, and where there are legislators there are lobbyists, full of arguments wrapped in plain brown campaign contributions. The dread spray-paint lobby will fight to the final drop, fearing that as California goes so will go the rest of democracy's laboratories. Spray paint, essentially a labor-saving device, has been on the market since 1949. Paint companies have made piles of money, selling something like 350 million cans a year--none of them, of course, purchased by taggers. Yo.

The arguments against a ban are easily anticipated. Why punish an entire, tax-paying industry for the sins of frustrated teen-agers? Is it legal? What about the economy? Consider all the people this would leave unemployed--spray-paint makers, hardware store clerks, graffiti cleanup specialists. And how can anyone prove it would work?

Frankly, it would not be fair to paint companies, just as it wasn't fair to Ford that a few tailgaters caused some Pintos to blow up, killing the car line. Nonetheless, restoring civilization as Ozzie and Harriet knew it carries a price. Desperate times call for desperate measures. The vocal support for Masters made clear how agitated the citizenry has become toward graffiti. Irrational or not, the common belief seems to be that graffiti is not a mere symbol of urban decay, but an actual agent of it. Perhaps the paint lobby, for psychological solace, should start to think of aerosol paints as an oil well: A great gusher, while it lasted.

As for legalities, the Bill of Rights contains not a single reference to Rust-Oleum. In fact, spray-paint prohibition already has been fully litigated. In 1992, Chicago became the first and only big city to ban outright retail sales of spray paint (the aldermen, voting 38-1, also tossed in wide-tip marker pens). The spray-paint lobby sued. After many appeals, the case is expected to be resolved any day by the U.S. Supreme Court. Legal sorts say all signs favor Chicago over the paint people; the city plans to start enforcing its ban in early April. That's precedent, sweet precedent. In the legislative world, it beats courage any old day.

*

And what about that good old trump issue, the economy? Well, I can't see how a spray-paint ban tempts recession, or even a lasting setback for the paint industry. What needs to be painted will be painted, the old-fashioned way. Stock tip: Invest in paint brush companies. My experience with spray paint is that only a little bit ever hits the intended target anyway. Most winds up in the nose hairs. Perhaps the ban could create a new service industry, similar to those suddenly ubiquitous oil change stations. Call it The Paint Shop: You bring it. We'll paint it. Thirty minutes in. Thirty minutes out. And no frosted nose hairs! Lots of money in that. Lots of jobs.

No, only taggers find spray paint indispensable, which is why the ban should work. Medford, Ore., and Laughlin, Nev., are a far way to travel to stock up for a night of painting Nasti Boyz on freeway underpasses. As for the Mexican frontier, if current political currents hold, we'll soon have a border so secure nothing will get across. Oh, a few extremely desperate fruit pickers might float over on para-sails or come by catapult, that sort of thing. Too much trouble, though, for the typical spray-paint smuggler.

Finally, there's a societal bonus. The ban would provide an excellent dry run on an issue no doubt painfully dear to Attila--gun control. As an avid reader of bumper stickers, he'd argue that if guns are outlawed, only outlaws, etc. It's high time to test this logic, to see if taking away an instrument of crime indeed will check the criminal. Since gun control is so politically impossible for now, why not experiment in the less lethal--usually--laboratory of graffiti?

See, it's a winner all around, this idea. Next up: leaf blowers.

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