Pittsburgh Police are cracking down on graffiti artists, but are arrests really the best way to handle the issue? | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh Police are cracking down on graffiti artists, but are arrests really the best way to handle the issue?

“If you provide an outlet for the artists, it keeps illegal activity down.”

For years, the staff at Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area had a problem. One of its historic sites, the Carrie Furnaces, was plagued by graffiti. Those charged with maintenance couldn’t keep up. By the time one graffiti tag was removed, 10 more popped up somewhere else.

But Rivers of Steel, which is tasked with preserving historic industrial sites, came up with a solution. It started a program allowing artists to do sanctioned street art on the site in pre-approved locations. 

That program and approach to managing the city’s graffiti problem is unique around here. It’s one of the few public places where street art is legal. Throughout most of the city, artists caught throwing up a tag or mural would be arrested.

That’s what happened to Carnegie Mellon University student Max Gonzales (known on the street as Gem), who was arrested in February after rising to the top of the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Graffiti Squad’s most-wanted list. Gonzalez is being charged with $114,000 worth of damage.

Graffiti remains a source of frustration for many residents in the city. Neighborhood Facebook groups are riddled with pictures of graffiti and accompanying complaints.

click to enlarge Painter Matt Spahr with one of his commissioned murals inside Downtown’s Tako restaurant - PHOTO BY AARON WARNICK
Photo by Aaron Warnick
Painter Matt Spahr with one of his commissioned murals inside Downtown’s Tako restaurant

“When we go to community meetings, people always stress their concerns about graffiti, that they dislike it,” says Graffiti Squad Det. Braden Seese. “You’re always going to have people who say there are more important crimes out there, but for the most part [residents are] against it.”

But another segment of the city has begun embracing street art. Murals are popping up in many neighborhoods, and local and international artists are using graffiti as a form of activism. These people say the key to reducing illegal street art isn’t the Graffiti Squad, which was reactivated this past November after a three-year hiatus. The key to curbing illegal activity, they say, is to create more legal spaces for artists.

“If you provide an outlet for the artists, 98 percent of them are going to be so grateful for the outlet that they’ll work within whatever parameters are there and it keeps illegal activity down,” says Ron Baraff, Rivers of Steel archive director. “You’re always going to have some people who that’s the thrill for them —  the illegal side of it. But the more buy-in you have, the more partnership you have, the more success you have. If you spend all your time screaming and yelling about graffiti being awful and [saying], ‘We need to scrub it all off,’ all it’s going to do is make more people want to come out and do it.”

Painter Matt Spahr got his start in street art in the late ’80s as part of the SDA (Super Dope Art) crew. Now 44, he won’t confirm or deny whether he still does illegal graffiti, but said he spends most of his time painting murals and signs. His work can be seen at popular Downtown restaurants like Tako and Butcher and the Rye. 

“I always messed with spray paint when I was an adolescent but I really got into painting burners and graffiti proper probably about 1988,” he says. “Everybody who painted graffiti in the city — it was a small group — we all knew each other. We just painted for fun. There was friendly competition between one another to see who could paint the nicest characters or get the freshest outlines out.”

(A burner is a larger graffiti piece usually done on a wall, billboard or the outside of a railroad car.)

Like Gonzales, Spahr was arrested for street art in his youth. He said graffiti is an outlet for many young artists.

“It’s the same spirit that was alive back in my heyday that’s alive today. It’s just kids looking for a voice, and you gotta start somewhere,” Spahr says. “Graffiti’s a pretty effective way to put yourself out there. When you’re young, the galleries don’t want anything to do with you.”

Spahr challenges those who don’t see graffiti as art, comparing it to Japanese calligraphy. And he says negative attitudes are beginning to shift.

“Mostly it’s the older generation griping about it, but we’re in the dawn of the new era and that form of art is not going to be demonized the same way it was in the past,” says Spahr. “I know a lot of twentysomething kids coming up, they would probably rather live in a neighborhood where they can go down the street and see some unsolicited, unsanctioned public artwork.”

In order to reduce illegal activity, Spahr said city government should create public art spaces where artists can work without having to file a permit. He identified the Eliza Furnace Trail near the Allegheny County Jail as a possible location.

“Pittsburgh could use a legal spot for those who don’t want the risk,” says Spahr. “Somewhere you can show up with a milk crate full of spray paint on a Sunday afternoon and you paint a burner.”

Baraff, from Rivers of Steel, agrees. He says the program at the Carrie Furnaces, which launched four years ago, could be a model for the rest of the city.

“We realized there was a story to tell there, a story of postindustrial Pittsburgh and how people and communities interact with these abandoned sites and how these abandoned sites move from a place of work to something very different, and in the case of Carrie it really became this site of exploration and in many ways a big urban playground,” says Baraff.

And since then, Baraff says he can count the number of times graffiti was done illegally on the site on one hand. (Artists interested in doing work at the site should contact Baraff or artist liaison Shane Pilster at www.riversofsteel.com.)

“We have control over where people paint,” says Baraff. “They’re not interfering with the historical integrity of the site. But it’s still allowing for a very visible pallete.” 

Similar programs have been created throughout the country. In Miami, Fla., Wynwood Walls is a large-scale graffiti and street-art space created in an old warehouse district. That’s where Lawrenceville artist Jeremy Raymer first got interested in street art.

“They wanted to revitalize the area and make it a tourist attraction. They bring in the biggest and baddest artists, and I saw it about two years ago and I was just enamored,” says Raymer. “Now I see all these older buildings and I just see blank canvases.”

Raymer suggested the Strip District as a possible location for sanctioned street art. He’s been fortunate to be commissioned to do murals at several locations around town and wishes the city were more welcoming of street art so more artists could have the opportunity to showcase their talent.

“To a certain extent, there are definitely pockets that are embracing it, and you do see new stuff popping up. But Pittsburgh does have the graffiti task force. They came and power-washed a buffalo I painted on my sidewalk last year,” says Raymer. “And they’re prosecuting this Gem guy, saying he’s done over $100,000 of damage to the community. I go back and forth on some of the illegal stuff, some of it I like, some of it I don’t. I just think Pittsburgh could have better priorities. Those kids are just covering over it over and over again, so it’s basically like a wasted resource.”

Raymer’s done sanctioned pieces for a variety of patrons. He did work on a vacant lot in Lawrenceville for the community group Lawrenceville United. An assisted-living facility in Mount Lebanon just commissioned him to do work for them. And the owner of a warehouse across from Raymer’s house gave him “free reign as an attempt to mitigate some of the shittier graffiti writers from tagging his building,” Raymer says.

Next, Raymer is planning to do a mural on a house he recently purchased in Uptown. He says it will be visible from the Boulevard of the Allies and the Birmingham Bridge.

But despite his passion for street art, Raymer’s never done illegal graffiti and he’s not a fan of a lot of the work he sees around the city. 

“A lot of the graff writers will just throw up a shitty tag somewhere, put no thought or effort into the placement,” says Raymer. “Some of the guys that do the wild-style that’s very colorful and takes a lot of technical detail and skill, I would consider that artwork. There’s a lot of gray area involved.

“I would consider that more in the realm of artwork than some of the kids just starting at the other end of Lawrenceville, and just throwing up their shake to a lot of the tags you see in the city.”

That’s the kind of work that was being done by Gonzalez, who was charged for painting tags in 58 locations, primarily in Oakland, Shadyside, East Liberty and Bloomfield. Police say that if the Graffiti Squad hadn’t been reinstituted in November, the bureau would never have had the resources to put all of the charges together.

“Max Gonzalez most likely would never have been arrested if the taskforce wasn’t brought back. And the other individuals we’re currently investigating, probably no one would be investigating,” says Det. Seese. “We have the ability to spend our whole time on graffiti alone.”

According to published reports, Gonzales confessed to leaving a number of tags.

The bureau’s Graffiti Squad was launched in 2006 and went on to operate for six years. During the time it was inactive, graffiti investigations were handled zone by zone. Detectives say zones weren’t really able to track tags city-wide and were mostly charging taggers only when they were caught in the act. In fact, Gonzalez was arrested in 2013 and charged only with a summary offense and fined for tagging one location. 

“A lot of the graffiti goes unreported,” says Det. Alphonso Sloan. “We have to go out and find the different tags, but unfortunately a lot of the tags aren’t reported. The gentleman from CMU [Gonzales], we only had maybe four tags in our system that were reported to 911. So we would encourage the community to report graffiti because a lot of people don’t usually call 911 for graffiti because they don’t feel it’s an emergency.”

While most residents aren’t calling 911 to report graffiti, the detectives say it’s one of the main complaints they hear at community meetings. 

“It brings down the value of the neighborhood,” says Sloan. “The city won’t grow because if someone wants to move to the city and they don’t know the city, they’ll see the graffiti and won’t want to move to that neighborhood. It’s an eyesore.” 

Pittsburgh-area transplant Leslie Stem disagrees. The Texas-born North Braddock resident, who grew up in Saudi Arabia, says, “Graffiti is not the problem.” 

“The value of street art is in letting people express themselves and getting to hear/see it,” Stem said in an email to City Paper. “I don’t approve of hate speech, but other than that, people should be able to have conversations in the streets of all places and graffiti is one avenue for that.”

As a graphic designer, Stem says she often draws inspiration from graffiti. And on the personal side, she says she finds solace in her travels when she sees a tag she recognizes. But above all, Stem says she supports graffiti because of its power.

“Graffiti yells from the rooftops a reminder that we don’t all have equal voice in this capitalist democracy,” says Stem. “It pisses on the establishment and upsets power, and that’s why it’s illegal.”

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