Tagging with graffiti: when a critical directional sign gets the “You’re IT!” treatment.

When it comes to establishing a cultural or sociological partition between civic art and graffiti, I recognize that I often have to walk a fine line.  After all, I’ve chronicled enough murals on the sides of buildings—some publicly sanctioned, others not so much—to judge when the artistic effort is going to stand the test of time, versus the spray painted “tags” that a new coat of paint will lacquer over within the next two weeks.  I try to remain neutral on the subject: not every illicit artistic initiative is unwelcome, even if the very rule-breaking nature of tagging constitutes vandalism, an illegal activity.  And if a mural embellishes the side of a building that looms over a weed-clogged, trash-strewn vacant lot, I’m usually open to accepting any spray painted artistic effort, no matter how amateurish.  But I’m having a very hard time getting behind this one:

Tagging the directional arrows on a highway sign, Washington DC

For those who cannot tell or identify the exact location, it’s a stretch of limited-access freeway in our nation’s capital: Interstate 395, to be more exact.  This mile-long segment of depressed thoroughfare—starting at the Potomac River and ending where it ramifies, continuing northward as I-395 and eastward as I-695—provides access to the Department of Agriculture (USDA), Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Education, the National Mall, the majority of the Smithsonian museums, and the US Capitol.  And it links these important federal facilities and landmarks within a rapid-fire succession of exit ramps and cloverleafs.  I’m going to assert, admittedly without any evidence beyond empirical, that it is one of the most fraught mile segments of interstate in the country, based on my experience both with its congestion levels (it can still be gridlocked at 10pm) and the high tendency for fender-benders.  Even with a speed limit of just 40 miles per hours, it’s a stressful drive.  And at least one ne’er-do-well thought it would be fun to tag one of the primary directional signs amidst these ramps and bifurcations.  Or, rather, a “throw up” (or throwie) reflecting a simpler, often monochrome approach intended for quick execution, and not most people’s definition of aesthetic graffiti tagging.  (I’ll continue to favor “tag” because it’s a more familiar term.)  The photo below makes it much easier to see, all from the viewpoint of cars traveling westward.

Tagging the directional arrows on a highway sign, Washington DC

Less than a month ago, our tagger (or taggers) managed to coat about one-eighth of this directional sign with various paints, concealing several of the guiding arrows.  Presumably the taggers couldn’t reach the “Maine Ave” text, so they tackled only what was reasonable.  It’s a feat in vandalism, in no small part because of the time it took.  Not being an expert in graffiti tagging, I don’t think the hollow outline text would take more than a minute or two, but the lower left surely was at least four or five minutes to get such a thorough fill.  That’s quite a bit of time standing precariously on a platform, presumably at night, in full view of motorists passing underneath; after all, even in the darkness, floodlights bathe these green signs so passers-by can read them.  And the vandals were committed to this sign in particular: here’s a view of the back, facing eastward.

thorough tagging of a highway sign in Washington DC (I-395)

Though less elaborate, the graffiti tagging (or throwie) was probably more dangerous here, since the vandals had to balance on the jungle-gym of joists and stanchions that keep the massive sign perched above the busy road.  And, at more ore less the same point in the road, another set of vandals (or perhaps the same ones) used the 7th Street SW overpass to access the platform fronting another directional sign, though the tagging is less thorough.

Most of the other graffiti in this mile-long segment of extremely congested highway is more innocuous and was far easier to execute.  But the typical passerby would be hard-pressed to suggest it aspires to art.  It’s ugly; the goal is defilement.

And the graffiti throughout Washington DC is far more abundant than it was four years ago, as is the case in many cities.  Returning to Indianapolis periodically, I have encountered more tagging where I previously wouldn’t have expected the Department of Public Works to tolerate it.  And even places I don’t visit regularly, like Seattle, reveal a powerful before and after 2020 that reflects a marked shift in attitudes toward the desecration of civic infrastructure, the preferred canvas for graffiti tagging.  (I blame the DPWs because, aside from abandoned buildings or train cars, our nation’s public works installations constitute the majority of graffiti tagging that lingers; private owners will either clean it up quickly or use their cameras to prosecute the perpetrator.)  And the pivotal year of 2020 underlies the problem: it’s not so much the amount of time that it took to tag this, it’s the fact that authorities tolerated it at all.  They didn’t used to.  And, capitalizing on the memetic implications that the Broken Windows Theory manifests, each tagging that goes untreated helps legitimize the act in the eyes of that tagger and his/her semblables—the taggers of tomorrow.  Many throwies are signatures of the artist, signaling to his or her peers his feat in conquering a difficult-to-reach sign.

Graffiti tagging along Rock Creek Parkway, DC

Notice another Washington DC tagging on a critical directional sign, there in the center-left, concealing a good portion of the written name of the road.  This second tagging occurs just northwest of the Lincoln Memorial, where Ohio Drive SW meets Constitution Avenue, the terminating segment of I-66, Rock Creek Parkway, and Whitehurst Parkway.  It’s not as congested as the I-395 segment, but it’s a lot more confusing.  I caught this one more recently—just days ago—and have no idea how long it’s been there.  A quick Google Street View search through archives indicates at least since October 2018.  While this weakens my postulate that things went to hell in a handbasket around mid-year 2020, it also shows how long these desecrations can linger.

Both of these examples occur at street segments where the directional choices bombard the motorist, who must process considerable amounts of sensory detail quickly or make a wrong turn—or sideswipe a vehicle facing the same challenges.  The graffiti tagging, never motivated by compassion, seems particularly malicious here.  It’s not long-suppressed artistic expression by a Picasso without a palette.  It’s as much an attempt to flout social norms as any other petty criminal act, but it creates the possibility for lethal consequences in a way that tagging a viaduct or retaining wall does not.  I get at least a little consolation from the fact that so many people now have GPS-fueled directions in their cars or smart phones, so the odds are much lower that this will cause a mishap than it would have in, say, 1990, a year I reference because it was a nadir for crime in Washington DC.

Regardless of the reduced risk, the tagging here offers better evidence than most of why a lackadaisical attitude toward petty vandalism only lowers the standards in aggregate for everything, so that the jurisdiction in question eventually tolerates shoplifting, squatting, littering, and looting, among other ills for which there remains a broad social consensus (at last for now).  And for those who simply think this adds edginess and grit to our revitalizing but still fragile urban landscapes, feel free to cover your eyes and count to fifty; the miscreants won’t stop if they don’t face negative punishment.  Ready or not, here they come.

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12 thoughts on “Tagging with graffiti: when a critical directional sign gets the “You’re IT!” treatment.

  1. Carl Ford

    California puts razor wire around their sign gantries. While it looks foreboding it prevents this kind of crap.

    Reply
        1. AmericanDirt Post author

          I did! About a year ago. I admit, I mostly just covered places that are crafting their public infrastructure to repel skaters. But I also looked at park furniture that tries to deter sleeping in public, or in airports.  It is so, so difficult, finding a balance between being compassionate, and not degrading the conditions of a space for everyone else. There really is no sweet spot.

          Reply
  2. Steve P

    Less damnable but difficult to understand (for me!) was new paint along a newly opened stretch of the southbound lanes — left wall, of course — of I-65 in Indianapolis this week. I scratched my head over how the taggers accessed the spot unless they stoped their car and parked behind the highway crews opening the new road.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      Wow, that is impressive. I’ve learned a bit more about these “throwies”: fast tags, that, due to their illicit nature, usually have to be executed in minutes, rather than seconds, and are less about artistic achievement than showing what they can get away with. Chances are, the throwie has encoded the name of the vandal (that’s all I’ll call the person at that point), so it’s a signal to fellow vandals of what has been accomplished. Hard-to-reach areas are bragging rights.

      At least if it’s a concrete wall, a pressure wash can probably get rid of it easily. I don’t know if that would work when it’s a highway sign like in DC. Probably strip the green paint and letter decals right off. This sign will probably have to be replaced altogether, which, if my article is any evidence, can take years.

      Reply
      1. Steve P

        definitely some bragging, and for me to see it at rush hour on day four tells me the highway crew is still too busy opening the road.
        By the way, it’s fantastic to see our newly opened road.

        Reply
          1. AmericanDirt Post author

            truly lovely and life affirming. Clearly an effort to prove what they can get away with. Also an infrastructural equivalent to the Broken Windows Theory

            Reply
  3. Brian Reid

    I always admired Singapore’s solution to this. Otherwise I’m pretty much a flaming liberal. Thanks for you take on things, Eric.

    Reply
    1. AmericanDirt Post author

      wow! Time to get out the old oak board, I guess. Naughty, naughty.
      To be fair, I’ve been to Singapore, briefly, and the absence of graffiti was noticeable, especially compared to Europe.

      Reply

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