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.”

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“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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