Most days for the past 17 years, Robert M.’s agenda has been the same — rubbing out graffiti.
St. Paul offers free graffiti cleanup to property owners, and Robert does most of it. After scrubbing a spot with solvent, Robert pulls on black boots, a black knit hat and a safety vest. Then he unwinds a long pressure hose to erase the toughest paint.
“This is my baby,” he said.
Robert is a journeyman painter with the city and part of Local 61. He asked that his last name be withheld to protect him from angry taggers.
On average, he removes 10 to 15 “incidents” daily and works most days in a month. He tries to clean graffiti within 36 hours of a report. He totals 2,000 to 3,000 cleanups per year.
“I don’t have slow days at all,” he said.
Although Robert hasn’t seen a change in his routine, graffiti incidents in the Twin Cities have dropped in recent years and appear to have leveled off, city statistics show.
Minneapolis saw the fewest incidents in January through April in recent history, with 1,776 reports of graffiti. That compares with 5,335 incidents for those months in 2007 and 3,388 in 2012.
Last year, the city of Minneapolis spent $1.17 million on graffiti cleanup and has budgeted $1.09 million for 2014. Gang-related graffiti in Minneapolis has dropped, as has the number of reports yearly.
St. Paul has seen a similar pattern, with 3,607 incidents in 2008; 1,514 in 2011, and 1,954 in 2013. That doesn’t include graffiti on state roads and buildings, parks and bus shelters.
Minneapolis Police Department spokesman John Elder attributed the decrease to a more visible police force. In St. Paul, police spokesman Howie Padilla credited the residents. “They feel comfortable coming to us and telling us that these things are happening,” he said.
Push for prevention
Although graffiti problems have declined, Minneapolis pushes graffiti prevention on its Facebook page. Police get more tagging tips in warmer months; more people are outdoors, so vandals are spotted more easily, Elder said.
Minneapolis and St. Paul have GPS-based apps to report precise locations. Minneapolis offers graffiti removal solvent free to homeowners and businesses owners at fire stations, but unlike St. Paul, it doesn’t offer free cleanup.
Elder cited several reasons. “No. 1, the use of resources; we don’t have the resources to do it. No. 2, it’s not our property, so we can’t remove it. If we remove it and we damage something in the process, who’s liable for that?”
Maude Lovelle, executive director of the Uptown Association, which works with businesses and neighborhood associations, said that although graffiti may indicate an unsafe area, not all graffiti is negative.
“Certainly, we distinguish from good graffiti and bad graffiti,” she said. “Good graffiti on murals and where it’s appropriate is a nice thing, but destruction to property is not a nice thing.”
The world is a canvas
JoJo — who is known by only that name — became enamored with the graffiti he’d see on freeways while growing up in Southern California.
“It left an indelible image in my brain,” he said, “something that I just knew was going to be part of my life, but I didn’t know how or what.”
After moving to Minneapolis in high school, JoJo set about making his mark, taking advantage of the sparse graffiti in the city at the time. Now he is one of the most prominent graffiti artists in the Midwest.
“We have this ideology that the world would be better with artwork and that public property should be allowed to be used by people in the public,” JoJo said.
He’s done illegal graffiti, but now focuses on community engagement. His company, Murals by Eros, designs art in graffiti styles. He’s started the Graffiti Art Mentorship and Education program (The G.A.M.E.) at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis.
He defines destructive graffiti as that “done with the absolute disregard of the property of an owner or the people in an area.” Private property, vehicles and small businesses should be off-limits, he said.
But much of the art in Minneapolis — 60 to 70 percent, he said — is artistic graffiti.
He does not believe that graffiti in Minneapolis is in decline. There are more graffiti artists in the city than ever before, he said. He attributes the decline in reported incidents to changing views.
“I think what’s happened is there’s been a shift of the idea of what is good graffiti art in the culture,” he said, “and I think people have kind of grown to this idea that you get a lot more recognition for positive murals than you do with tagging.”