Wasatch Environmental Update for September 2, 2018
By John Worlock
“Graffiti: Contagion and Prevention”
We’ve recently heard about an outbreak of antisocial graffiti in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Since the beauty and the wildness of those canyons are important, we’ve been studying the history of graffiti, why it happens, and what to do about it.
Graffiti didn’t begin with pressurized spray cans of paint. For as long as we, personally, have visited public toilets, we have been treated to the poetry and images scribbled on the walls. Some of us can also remember the ubiquitous “Kilroy was here” graffiti from the Second World War.
The history of graffiti reaches back at least 40,000 years, the age of some cave-paintings in Indonesia. They consist of silhouetted human hands and painted drawings of animal stick-figures. They lead us to wonder what was the motive – what was in the minds of those early proto-graffiti artists. But since the images are repeated in over 100 caves, there must be an element of contagion – some impulse to copy, and maybe even refine, the techniques of image creation.
The idea of contagion is important. Surely Kilroy spread over the world by contagion. The well-known broken-window effect, where a broken window seems to invite a passer-by to break another, is an example of contagion. So we have arrived at anti-social contagion, of the kind currently rampant in Little Cottonwood Canyon, the defacing of structures and rock-faces with spray paint.
One known and effective technique for preventing this kind of contagious graffiti is the its swift removal, like quick repair of a broken window. So we have been pleased to learn of concerted efforts to erase graffiti, since the accumulation of many graffiti covered surfaces suggests that it will take that a gargantuan effort. One man, Scott Whipperman, has been organizing volunteers, using a power washer and environmentally friendly solvents along with a lot of hand-scrubbing, to remove the paint. And the Cottonwoods Canyon Foundation now promises a wide-ranging graffiti abatement action plan with a variety of partners that just might be effective not only in removing the existing canyon graffiti but also in preventing future outbreaks. They just might help to identify and eliminate the pathogenic causes of our antisocial graffiti.