Friday, June 19, 2009

When Taggers Aren't that Bright

Commentary: When Taggers Aren’t That Bright

If they're going to take the risk of vandalizing property, why not say something meaningful?

City-owned property at the corner of De La Vina and Haley streets was tagged overnight Wednesday
City-owned property at the corner of De La Vina and Haley streets was tagged overnight Wednesday. (Sharon Byrne photo)

By  | Published on 06.18.2009

I live in that famed part of city called “West Downtown,” where the neighborhood is coming together to fight big-city urban issues in the small-town enclave of Santa Barbara. Thursday morning, while walking the dog, I noticed that city-owned property at the corner of De La Vina and Haley streets had been tagged overnight. I had walked the dog past that same spot about 11 p.m. Wednesday night, and the tag wasn’t there, so it was a late-night tag.

First, I dislike the term “tagging.” Tagging is a subset of graffiti, where the tagger develops a unique — usually unreadable — signature for his or her work. Lately, we seem to see less graffiti and a whole lot more indistinguishable scribbles as tags. But my issue with the moniker tagging is that it seems like a fun description for what is essentially defacing public buildings. Why not call it defacing or vandalizing, rather than tagging? Tagging seems so much more friendly and fun and far less irritating than the straight-out defacement it is.

When passing by the numerous tags in my neighborhood, I often wonder why the author, if so intent on making his or her mark on a wall, couldn’t have at least said something of importance? Graffiti has long been with us, as even Roman, Pompeiian and Greek ruins contained scratchings that advertised brothels or condemned bad tavern owners. The 20th-century graffiti around the world often spoke out against oppression, racism and political issues.

I understand that youths want to make their mark and have their dissidence felt by the blind masses, so to speak. If you’re going to take all the risk of writing on walls, hang yourself over bypasses and possibly get arrested, why not use the opportunity to say something a bit more profound than the unreadable gibberish that shows up?

I don’t want to get Santa Barbarans up in arms, as we all dislike graffiti in our fair city. I am not throwing down a challenge to taggers to come up with clever catchphrases to paint all over our city in a sort of graffiti version of “American Idol.” But, hey, if they’re going take all this risk and make all this effort, why not at least do something with some intelligence and thought behind it? Why not provoke some insight into our political and cultural woes as a nation, a state and a city?

The overnight tagger thought he or she was indeed making such a profound statement. Unfortunately, because of poor planning, the majority of the message is lost behind a bush on the sidewalk. Those driving by won’t get the gist of it at all. Since the tagger used the entire side of a house to paint the message, he or she obviously intended a billboard effect. But what is seen is meaningless scrawls that dissolve into ... shrubbery. 

Instead of being annoyed that we had been tagged — or defaced — yet again, I found myself laughing over the tagger’s silly mistake.

This is probably not the reaction they were looking for, but if you’re going to do something, at least try to do it well. If you’re going to mark up our neighborhood, be prepared, as an urban artiste wannabe, to have your work admired or scorned in equal measure, especially if you’re not smart enough to plan it out properly.

— Sharon Byrne represents the West Downtown Neighborhood Group.

»  wrote on 06.19.09 @ 08:28 AM

A tagger’s “silly mistake”!?  When a new City ordinance requires property owners to clean up graffiti within three days that is perpetrated by others against them, it is not a silly, harmless prank.  It is an act of defacing, and sometimes permanently damaging, private property.  Also, the police told me that often the taggers start out by “practicing” and get bolder from there.  There should be a swift and effective message sent that graffiti and taggers will not be tolerated in our community.

»  wrote on 06.19.09 @ 09:08 AM

I have to say that on the “upper” westside, above Harding School, there have been some odd graffiti incidents. One that was tagged on the smallest horizontal piece of wood on a For Sale sign in front of a Valerio home, and the other ridiculously tagged hedge on a corner lot across the street from the childcare facility at Harding School. I have pix of both because they were stretching the concept.

»  wrote on 06.19.09 @ 09:18 AM

Sharon, At least it is a step up from gang markings, though just as distructive.

»  wrote on 06.19.09 @ 11:34 AM

My house got damaged by these attacks. I cannot fix the permanent dage done. This is no different than if someone dents your car. The city and the police need to crack down on this criminal behavior.

»  wrote on 06.19.09 @ 12:20 PM


The silly mistake was in the tagger’s poor placement of the graffiti so that most of ‘the message’ dissolves behind the shrub. I actually dislike tagging, for the reasons I stated above. I would really prefer it if people didn’t, though I have seen some excellent protest forms of graffiti in other cities throughout the world. I am actually insulting the intelligence of the tagger in this article for his poor placement skills, not condoning tagging in general.


»  wrote on 06.19.09 @ 01:33 PM

I hope this incident shows up in the city’s crime stats, and on brownies’ cameras!

»  wrote on 06.19.09 @ 02:39 PM

This tag was obviousy done by someone,probably a kid, wanting to be ‘in’ the tagger\banger club but too fearful of the law to be caught.  So the tagging ‘behind the bush’ (so to speak) just indicates a real scardy cat. So, annoying as it is you have to have some compassion for this wanna-be a gangster who probably just wants creds so the other kids stop stealing his lunch money at the bus stop.  Speaking of why they don’t write anything meaningful - these kids have no idea who che guevarra is even when they are wearing the t-shirt.

»  wrote on 06.19.09 @ 04:14 PM

This particular tag read “Welcome to Hell” along with the numbers “666” I don’t think this has any gang related ties. Probably just some drunks coming from downtown or maybe we have devil worshippers now?

Who knows? That city owned building is so run down it almost invites vandalism. Since it’s a city owned property will the city be responsible for cleaning it up w/in 3 days? God only knows they haven’t taken care of that property or the trees or plantings around it. It’s so overgrown with plants, dwarf palms, etc… You can’t even see past the sidewalk when walking down De La Vina towards Haley!

Of course you can’t see the tagging from the street the bush on Haley is so overgrown it’s disgusting!

The city not only needs to clean up the graffiti on their building they also need to cut down the overgrown trees, plants, bushes, etc… The whole property is a site for sore eyes and it’s owned by the city!

Shame on them and shame on the people who defaced that side of the building!

»  wrote on 06.19.09 @ 06:15 PM

Lots of people make speculations as to the motives behind graffiti and also hold stereotypes of those who practice it. If you are interested in this issue/debate/practice I highly recommend you find a copy of the movie “Bomb It” (to ‘bomb’ is to paint multiple pieces in an area, see You can find it on Netflix or, um, online perhaps.

“Bomb It” is a documentary that features both graffiti artists as well as their critics, including George Keller, the author of the Broken Window theory. Check out for a trailer. After watching this you will be more informed about this public debate.

»  wrote on 06.19.09 @ 06:41 PM

yes, if they had as much talent in “tagging” as you do in the writing of this article...we might be reading something of importance or at least thought provoking. 
Keep up the good work Sharon, I like your hearing your voice!

»  wrote on 06.19.09 @ 11:22 PM

Sharon, great work and a cool pic of the” not so bright” vandalism. The city ought to keep their properties and exemplary levels, not allowing them to become a public nuisance. The out of control 6-8 foot overgrown weeds could have acted as a barrier for the not so bright vandals. The property is dark and abandoned. There is also graffiti on the creek bank--This has been there for over two years, despite our numerous calls to various city departments. One department says it’s the city graffiti crew’s problem, they say it’s the creeks, others say it’s streets. We await a full clean up on the premises. Let’s keep it nice SB! Thank you for your great work Sharon!


»  wrote on 06.19.09 @ 11:27 PM

Stricter penalties please. These vandals are costing us taxpayers and residents too much money. It’s unfair. Has anyone seen the freeways these days? It’s so darn horrible! Shame shame

»  wrote on 06.20.09 @ 11:20 AM

I totally agree with your statement that “my issue with the moniker tagging is that it seems like a fun description for what is essentially defacing public buildings. Why not call it defacing or vandalizing, rather than tagging? Tagging seems so much more friendly and fun and far less irritating than the straight-out defacement it is.”

By getting the press and the public to use terms like “tagging,” we soften the impact of what is criminal behavior. There has been a lot of politically-correct “new speak” introduced into our common language in the past few years with the intent of making criminal actions and criminals seem less criminal - for example terrorists are now “insurgents,” illegal aliens are now “undocumented workers,” etc.

It’s about time that the public and the news media started using accurate descriptors for the behaviors involved. It is all too easy to change the meaning of the concept being communicated if we change the words used to describe the concept…

»  wrote on 06.20.09 @ 06:21 PM

One of the first things Rudy Giuliani did as mayor of supposedly ‘unmanageable’ New York City was to crack down on grafitti and squeegee men (aka aggressive panhandlers) on the theory, now fully proven over the past 15 years), that sending a tough message on small crimes will make criminals think again before committing bigger ones. Now yes, I know that the looney lefties in SB would never approve of an idea that came from (gasp) a Republican, but the facts are incontrovertible:  after Mayor Dinkins declared NYC impossible to clean up, Giuliani won in a landslide (in a Democratic city) and proceeded to clean NYC up.  Less graffiti, less panhandling, steadily decreasing crime rates.  It can be done.  And not by punishing the victims of the crime as our brilliant City Council has decreed.

»  wrote on 06.21.09 @ 03:29 PM

This is a great article, so many good points made. Tagging has just gotten completely pointless, and so surprisingly expected and trite (i mean ‘666’, come on, what’s next, an anarchist symbol?), which is completely contrary to the definition of graffiti. I was riding the subway in nyc and caught a quick glance of a tag deep in the subway. I had to laugh, this kid risked his life, got deep into the subway, just to put up a tag nobody pays any mind to because everyone expects it to be there. Nothing unique, just like some decorative subway motif. 
Graffiti should be taken on a case by case basis. I mean, there’s good graffiti that definitely improves and adds character to a (public) area (just look at the LA river), and something like this, which is just straight up vandalism. If tagging and graffiti were treated like that, kids would make more of an effort to add meaning and skill to their art.

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