Graffiti Psychology: Why Vandals Strike
Vandalism is a costly crime. The National Bureau of Justice reports that in the year 2000, vandalism accounted for $1.6 billion in damage to households alone. Those who are left to clean up the aftermath and deal with the trauma of property damage often are left wondering why their property became a target.
With a little insight into the psychology of vandalism — where it’s most likely to occur and why — building service contractors can help their customers both prevent property damage and recover quickly when it does occur.
Vandalism tends to be a crime mainly committed by juveniles. Dr. Jeffery Chase, a license clinical psychologist and psychology professor at Radford University in Radford, Va., says many times people, especially children and adolescents, will use vandalism to vent.
“Vandalism to me is basically anger,” Chase says. “It can be displacement — displacement in the technical sense is that [vandals] wish to do something against a more threatening object or individual, so they vent their anger on something safer.”
Chris Mitchell, owner and president of a Servpro franchise in Salt Lake City, specializes in vandalism clean-up and restoration. He has worked with everything from kids spray-painting walls, to thousands of dollars of property damage.
“Not too long ago, we had a … situation where the previous tenants had a had a husband/wife dispute. We cleaned up broken windows and a lot of paint,” he says.
Group graffiti While individuals tend to vandalize out of anger, groups generally do so for social reasons.
“There is that socialization quality of trying to fit in, be involved in the gang, and be accepted,” Chase says.
A lot of graffiti starts out as an introduction to gang activity, he explains. Most graffiti starts out small, and as vandals become better at creating graffiti, they will use a lot of space for their work and start networking with other graffiti artists. When that happens, vandals may start to compete with each other.
“[There is a lot of] one-upsmanship in artistic forms, where one person does his best work, and someone else comes along and does something else over it,” Chase says.
Barry Woods, president of Graffiti Control Systems in North Hollywood, Calif., says that the majority of his business is cleaning up repeated instances of “tagging” — defacing surfaces repeatedly with an identifiable mark unique to each vandal or gang.
“As far as taggers, tagging crews and gangs are concerned, they are probably responsible for about 80 percent [of repeat graffiti],” Woods says. “Every once in a while, we’ll get someone that we don’t recognize who is a new member of a gang, or sometimes it’s just some kid coming home from school who decided to put his name on the wall.”
Taggers are selective about the buildings they hit, Woods says. Older, unkempt buildings are usually prime targets.
“Two- and three-story buildings that are over 80 years old and not part of a business district — those are the ones likely to get hit,” he says. Usually, buildings in business districts are tough targets for taggers because they are in highly visible areas.
“It’s hard to hit a major building with a lot of people coming and going,” he adds.
Graffiti clean-up does not come without dangers. Woods says his crews have had their own vans tagged even stolen; crews have been held at gunpoint.
Responding quickly to graffiti is a key element of prevention. Quick and consistent clean-up often deters vandals from returning.
“The faster we get it off and the better job we do, the less likely it is to come back,” he says.
The psychological reason for this reduction is because of a shift in the vandals’ environment, Chase suggests.
“It’s no different if you or I go somewhere where everyone else is on their very best behavior,” he says. “The language you choose to use — and those sorts of things — are affected by your immediate surroundings. We tend to look toward the immediate environment to determine what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate. How should we act?”
A clean, graffiti-free building sends the message that vandalism is not appropriate in this environment, and people are much more likely to behave according to that message, Chase says.
Woods has gotten so good at immediate response that he’s had some of his contracts reduced. In many BSC jobs, that’s seen as a sign of poor performance, but in graffiti removal, that’s the ultimate goal.
“There are areas that we’ve sort of worked our way out of,” he says. “If you are diligent in what you do, then in some areas you will see a reduction.”
Immediate response to graffiti may reduce repeated occurrences, but immediate response, in Woods’ case, tends to benefit the community as well. In fact, Woods says he receives comments and compliments from the community on a regular basis.
Benjamin F. Walker is an industry writer in Salt Lake City.