I caught wind of these competing, brightly contrasting layers of graffiti on a side street during my last visit to Indianapolis. A rainbow of vandalism, so it seems.
Sure, it sort of looks like tagging, but is it really fooling anybody? The barely discernible reflection should indicate that these tags are behind a pane of glass. And what is that circular, partially cut-off label on the right-hand edge?
But the text in the central rectangle captures the real essence of this display: the word “vandalism” with a heart for the V. It’s a weird sentiment to see on a window covering sanctioned by the building’s property manager. Do the folks at CityWay really want vandalism? Are they really tipping their hat to low-grade property crime—a mockery of the nearly sacrosanct American doctrine of private ownership? Not likely. The heart in vandalism might suggest a cheeky respect for the colorful creativity that emerges through street art, but it’s not like the folks at CityWay would tolerate if multiple people started showing their love of vandalism by tagging the side of the building. After all, extensive graffiti requires thousands of dollars to eliminate. No, this graffiti is large paper poster in the window: a filler for a leasable retail space that is awaiting a tenant.
It’s all part of a display in the window of a multi-use building, and the level 3 indicates the building’s third-floor tenants: The Alexander hotel, a hotel bar called Plat 99, and the now-shuttered restaurant Cerulean (replaced by Nesso), all encompassed under the broader name of the full development, CityWay, which includes multiple apartment buildings of varying heights, some of which feature additional first-floor retail tenants.
It’s not really any different than the sort of displays we often see in vacant in-line spaces in a mall or a struggling older commercial building. I’ve featured such displays many times in the past, whether it’s the predictable brand of a mega-corporation like Simon Property Group, or clever grassroots attempt to mimic a Magritte painting. I’m not sure what they’re going for here, because the notion of championing vandalism as subversive might have some interest if it included social commentary, a la Banksy. (The stenciled “PUNKT” letters in the lower right resemble nothing less than the logo to the Broadway smash Rent; not exactly anti-establishment. But then, in 2021, neither is Banksy.) It’s probably just an opportunity to fill a never-yet-occupied retail space with something colorful and unabashedly urban. I can respect that…minus the “I heart Vandalism” part.
I felt impelled to cover this “Lovandalism” display in no small part because of the proliferation of graffiti most of us city-dwellers have witnessed over the last two years. Returning to Indy very intermittently, I noticed long-standing murals that remained unsullied for a decade, now defaced. (Granted, the murals were getting old and faded, but they still looked better without the tagging.) The presence of graffiti in Washington DC, particularly on public infrastructure—retaining walls, highway exit ramps, bridges—has frustrated me because it’s such a clear demonstration of civic degradation, reduced supervision by the assigned authorities (law enforcement), and a general lack respect for public works.
It’s easy to attribute the growth in graffiti from the social strain that the pandemic has induced and lockdowns exacerbated, but it also owes a great deal to the experiments in “reimagining policing” that accompanied these aforementioned stressors. I use a safer gerund (reimagining) rather than “defunding” because only a small handful of cities have carried the experiment that far, but many others have unequivocally encouraged police to focus their patrols on major offenses and not to sweat the small stuff. The result? More graffiti. More vandalism. Smashed windows. Looted stores. Muggings.
Clearly those who see this extra graffiti as edgy contrarianism will call me a fuddy-duddy. Maybe I am. I can certainly appreciate that some graffiti belies a genuine artistic skill that almost transcends the illicit activity. But the adverb there is key: almost. I’ve routinely evoked the Broken Windows Theory in previous blog posts: the notion that enforcement and supervision of the petty crimes (spray paint tagging, littering, broken glass) helps prevent more serious crimes. After all, graffiti and vandalism in general are implicit signals of neglect, either the vandalized property suffering abandonment or the absence of supervisory and enforcement infrastructure (policing). Possibly both. And do they eventually lead to more crimes? All signals point to yes: Indianapolis surpassed its all-time record of absolute homicides last year (not sure about per capita, since the city has a lot more people than its previous homicide peaks in the 1980s). Washington DC had the worst homicide record in almost 20 years, though still not quite at 1980s levels, when it was routinely the murder capital of the country. It’s a genuine topic of conversation in formerly safe neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, where muggings have taken place in broad daylight.
Though I hate to be cynical, I’m fine with it even if that means others lob accusations of moralizing my way. Way back in the stone ages of the 2000s when I was in school, “clean and safe” were doctrine among pretty much all urban revitalization specialists. They saw merit in the Broken Windows Theory. Did we get complacent after too much urban reinvestment? Even amidst the crime, most streetscapes that were vibrant in 2019 still seem to be holding up reasonably well. Even CityWay is getting another new tenant soon. But both of these cities have nodes that have been hit hard: the City Market in Indianapolis was on its way to a rebound after decades of lagging performance, while Washington DC’s Union Station was generally doing fine prior to COVID; now both are well over 50% vacant.
I can at least dismiss this paean to vandalism in Indianapolis to a reflection of the times; the CityWay storefront still references a restaurant that closed a little before COVID (Cerulean), so it’s old and does not anticipate the repudiation of Broken Windows Theory we have since witnessed. Or does it? The psychosocial undercurrent that supports vandalism might have been bubbling under for years before it erupted like a geyser in 2020. Regardless, if urban advocates think that healthy, revitalized inner city neighborhoods can coexist with these sort of crime levels for the long haul, I have to grab them by the shoulders and pivot them toward footage from the 1970s and 80s. India-no-place. The nation’s capital as the murder capital. Continued flight to the burbs. History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. That said, it should at least occur in pentameter and not a spondee. Our historical memory needs to improve. But gosh darn it, the kids these days just don’t know how lame downtowns were, even when Rent first came out. They weren’t born yet.