Volume 75, Number 38 | February 8 -14 2006

Villager photo by Bob Arihood

A storefront at 81 Avenue A at E. Fifth St. that houses a karaoke club is covered with every imaginable type of graffiti, from markings and spray paint to acid etching on the window and stickers.

Building owners will be tagged for graffiti

By Chad Smith

With a resurgence of graffiti overrunning walls, windows and almost every nook and cranny in New York City, someone’s going to pay.

But it won’t be the vandals, at least not this time.

Instead, every commercial building owner or a residential building owner with six or more units will be fined if they don’t remove graffiti from their premises after receiving a warning, according to a new city law that goes into effect on March 29.

The law has drawn uneasy responses from landlords and those who represent them. But some graffiti writers are unmoved.

“The law is just more burden on landlords,” said Sion Misrahi, who owns residential and commercial property on the Lower East Side.

The fines may reach up to $300, but the city will remove the graffiti for free if the property owner contacts the mayor’s office and signs a liability waiver. Once that is done, cleaners hired by the city through the Community Assistance Unit will arrive at the building and attempt to remove the graffiti.

Owners have 60 days to respond to written notices left on their property and they cannot be fined more than once in a six-month period. However, if, after 30 days, the city receives no word from the owner, workers contracted by the city can enter or access property grounds and “abate the nuisance by removing or concealing the graffiti.”

Although graffiti’s heyday is considered to have been during the 1980s and early ’90s, a quick walk through the Lower East Side undermines this assumption: tags are ubiquitous; some completely cover apartment buildings’ front doors and storefronts. All the scrawl has left some residents ready for a change.

“This is a great new law,” said a woman who just gave her first name, Clara, and who has lived on the Lower East Side for 27 years. “The landlord don’t do nothing for this building,” she said. Layers of multicolored tags also mar the inside of her building on 231 E. Fourth St. The walls are a medley of marker ink and spray paint that covers the mailboxes and even creeps up the stairwells.

The building’s landlord didn’t respond to numerous phone calls by The Villager seeking comment.

This new law that might help spruce up Clara’s building was first proposed about two years ago by City Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., who represents Astoria, Queens, and is chairperson of the Council’s Committee on Public Safety. Vallone has emerged as one of the city’s most outspoken graffiti opponents. He said he and members of the committee were careful when drafting this law not to overburden the landlords or infringe upon their rights.

“We knew that we had to try and make everyone happy,” said Vallone in reference to property owners and lawmakers. Some considerations include a provision that takes into account the difficulty of cleaning graffiti during winter months. According to that provision, summonses will not be issued by the city between Nov. 1 and March 31.

Perhaps more important, though, Vallone didn’t want the new graffiti law to entangle the city in subsequent First Amendment litigation. “That was the most difficult part of this whole thing,” said Vallone. In other words, if property owners say that they do in fact want the graffiti on their premises — which constitutes a form of free speech — the graffiti can stay and they won’t be fined. However, that particular property owner would “actually have to have something in writing, [such as a check stub that proves payment on a commissioned work], which would state that they really did want the graffiti on their property,” said Mike Murphy, Vallone’s communications director.

While lawmakers may have carefully considered the legal complexities, they may have at the same time overlooked some more intricate social aspects pertaining to graffiti and street culture when they were crafting the law.

“The people or landlords in the more impoverished areas, which are more prone to being affected by graffiti, are likely to suffer at the hands of this law,” said Dave Villorente, a well-known graffiti writer in the 1980s.

Villorente, 36 of Fort Greene, Brooklyn, who used to be known for his tag “Chino,” now works as an artist and journalist. “In the end, you’re just going to be hurting those in the poorer communities; it’s just ironic,” he said of the new law. Villorente also said that hardcore “bombers” — graffitists who quickly throw up impromptu murals and tag names — would revandalize the newly cleaned surfaces, which would give them “a clean canvas every few months.” In essence, he argued, the law wouldn’t stop the graffitists.

On a recent day, Stan, 23, stood in front of Scrap Yard, a store at W. Broadway and Canal St., and reinforced Villorente’s idea. Scrap Yard is a store whose shelves are filled with graffiti magazines, stickers and videos, and Stan is an active graffiti writer who lives on the Bowery and does his graffiti work without landlords’ permission.

“I’ve been caught before and I’ve paid fines — it’s not that big of a deal,” said Stan, after an unsuccessful attempt to buy spray paint at the store. He then added in reaction to Vallone’s law, “We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing.”

Real estate lobbyists point to various loopholes that they say are flaws in the law. For example, the law doesn’t consider other social implications, like gang graffiti, says Frank Ricci, director of governmental affairs of New York’s Rent Stabilization Association. “Just the other day a landlord told me that he had been threatened by a gang member and warned not to remove the graffiti on his building,” Ricci said.

Although these concerns aren’t addressed, Vallone’s law does, however, consider the changing nature of modern graffiti and is ready to accommodate building owners who have “alternative” types of graffiti on their property. Some alternative types include hydrofluoric acid etchings. These etchings appear on glass doors and windows after a vandal douses the glass surface with the acid, which softens it and allows him or her to engrave a tag. This irremovable type of graffiti has forced property owners to replace the glass.

“The city would do everything it could in order to remedy the etchings,” said Murphy of Vallone’s staff. Moreover, some owners claim that the cost to replace a window can be up to $1,000, and at this price, they may be forced into allowing these disfigured windows to remain. However, Murphy said, “If the city couldn’t clean the etchings, the owner wouldn’t be liable.”

Indeed, graffiti has bedeviled city officials since it became a ubiquitous form of urban expression in the late ’70s. Since then, the city has taken great measures in attempting to eradicate it, as the city did in the ’80s when the Metropolitan Transportation Authority refused to let subway trains leave the yards until they were completely cleaned of graffiti in order to discourage vandals from tagging them. More recently, the imposition of stricter laws — also at Vallone’s behest — have made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to possess spray paint, broad-tipped markers or etching acid in public.

But the city has never punished property owners for graffiti before, and the law is bound to stir up controversy. There is the inherent difficulty lawmakers face in trying to find a balance in keeping the city clean, while not completely squelching artistic freedom in a city that holds such freedoms dear.

“Graffiti gives the city character,” said Caroline Aim, who owns the Tomato Store, an organic gourmet food shop on the corner of Canal and Washington Sts. The store has a graffiti mural on its outside wall, which is about 9 feet high and 35 feet wide. She wouldn’t be liable under the new law, because she commissioned the work.

“The mural was actually good for business; we had lots of people stopping in on our store when the kids did the work,” she said. Aim paused and then added in concession, “I guess if the city wants owners to get their property cleaned, though, they probably should.”

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