By MIKE GERRITY Chronicle Staff Writer
Between crass limericks scratched on bathroom stalls and sloppily spray-painted faces staring at drivers from alleyways, graffiti remains a daily encounter for everyone.
On Friday, several teenage volunteers with Hopa Mountain leadership program helped scrub off some tags on a grain building behind Ale Works on Main Street and around Lindley Park, work they intend to continue throughout the summer.
Before their work began, the volunteers learned about the “broken-window” theory of criminal activity in the inner city, said Liz Mack, HOPA Mountain’s youth progress coordinator.
“One unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing,” James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling wrote in an article entitled “Broken Windows” in The Atlantic magazine in 1996.
Wilson and Kelling theorized that disorder attracts more crime and, if not dealt with quickly, can create hotbeds for dangerous activity,
This same theory is being applied to graffiti in Bozeman.
“The areas that have a lot more of it attract more than the areas that have less,” Mack said. “If you get it within 24 hours, you’re less likely to see it again.”
Last year, after a rash of tagging sprees in Bozeman’s historical district, the city assembled a Vandalism and Graffiti Task Force. David Ferguson, a city police officer who works with the task force and the Downtown Bozeman Partnership, estimated that cleaning up vandalism easily costs the city more than $1,000 each year.
The pressure-washing methods often used to remove graffiti are also hard on the building materials of historical structures, adding to the cost, he said.
“You gotta look at the cost of not only materials but the labor it takes to get it off,” Ferguson said.
Acknowledging that graffiti art has a place in modern culture as a form of artistic expression, some communities set aside designated spaces, or “free walls,” for artists to use for more positive and artful murals or other designs.
Bozeman had such a wall in Lindley Park.
Steve Lowery, 16, a HOPA Mountain volunteer, helped cover the wall with gray paint Friday. He thought some of the graffiti had potential as something more than petty tagging and “stupid lines.”
“There was actual art there,” Lowery said.
But the problem was that over time, the wall was covered with sloppy tags, profanities and gang signs, according to Chris Naumann, executive director of the downtown association.
Naumann said maintaining free walls often becomes a liability for law enforcement as it draws more unsightly and offensive graffiti that can create an environment for petty crime. Consequently, many communities are drawing back on their support for free wall projects.
“It’s sort of a mixed message,” Naumann said.
But Naumann admitted that the crime cesspool scenario characterized in the broken-window theory has not materialized in Bozeman, as far as he has seen.
“But we’d also prefer to not find out,” he said.