State Senator Wants Tougher Stance on Graffiti

Senator Klein's message resonated with his brightly-dressed supporters. (Photo: Astrid Baez/The Bronx Ink)

Senator Klein's message resonated with his brightly dressed supporters. (Photo: Astrid Baez/The Bronx Ink)

Clad in fire engine red T-shirts that evoked the spray paint they despise, residents joined a state senator on Friday afternoon in pledging to send a strong message to vandals who tag buildings.

Calling themselves Court Watchers, these residents are part of a new initiative backed by Sen. Jeffrey D. Klein to eliminate graffiti across the Bronx. Tired of unauthorized street art, the group is taking a more aggressive stance in advocating tougher penalties and jail sentences for offenders.  The plan is simple — watchers will sit in on graffiti cases wearing T-shirts and buttons that illustrate their message: Vandalism is not art.

“Graffiti to our homes, businesses and places of worship causes emotional and in many ways financial distress and is too serious a crime to allow vandals to get away with a slap on the wrist,” Klein said in an official statement.

Although talks for the program began early in October 2009 when Klein met with civic leaders from the Waterbury-LaSalle and Pelham Bay communities, the senator has made cleaning the streets of graffiti a “top priority” for the past 16 years. In 2005, he launched the Graffiti Cleaning Program, which created a hotline for constituents of the 34th Senate District to request the removal of graffiti from their neighborhoods.

Bronx District Attorney Robert Johnson’s office estimates that since January, there have been 17 violations of the city’s anti-graffiti laws. People caught in the act of graffiti or in possession of aerosol spray cans, sketching tools and even a Sharpie, with “intent” to damage property were considered to be in violation. Defendants were charged as adults and 13 of those cases resulted in guilty pleas, with one defendant serving a jail sentence. In New York City, a maximum sentence for repeat offenders is 15 days incarceration, while first-time offenders are commonly sanctioned fines of up to $250 per incident or community service.

According to the Bronx District Attorney’s Office, the majority of vandals are tried as first-time offenders with as little as 5 percent actually serving jail time. “It’s probably not a first offense, but simply the first time they were caught,” said Mary Jane Musano, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee of the Waterbury-LaSalle Community Association and a resident of the Bronx. “When they disrespect the community, they have to know they’ll be punished.”

Musano believes that graffiti vandalism is once again on the rise and that residents could use the court’s help in putting a stop to it and vice versa. A longtime supporter of the “Adopt-a-Mailbox” campaign, in which residents paint over tagged mailboxes, Musano looks forward to a more aggressive clean-up process. “Senator Klein’s backing is the missing puzzle-piece needed to make this happen,” she said.

Last week, Klein sent clean-up crews to nearly two dozen locations across the Bronx and Westchester County to remove tags from overpasses, railroad bridges and buildings in what was termed a “spring-cleaning effort.”

While Klein agrees that jail time for vandals would cost the city money, he also believes the damage done to the community is are far more costly. According to Klein, financing for clean-ups comes straight from taxpayer’s wallets and is hurtful to the economy and livelihood of the neighborhoods.

“No one will want to live or work in a neighborhood with such an eyesore,” said Joe Bombace, a Bronx resident for nearly 58 years. “Don’t come into our community and deface our homes,” he said.

Not everyone agrees with the senator’s backing of this project. Anthony Aharon, a former resident of the Bronx and freelance graphic artist, sees graffiti as a protest against a system that is already failing the community. “It’s a way to relieve stress, a form of self-expression,” he said. Though Aharon works on commissioned projects, he thinks that jailing people who are caught tagging walls should be considered a violation of First Amendment rights. “Graffiti is another way of talking and being heard,” he said.

Aharon still carries his graffiti tools in his bag.

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