Saturday, June 13, 2015


27,000 Year Old Cave Print, Indonesia
Hazy New York Skyline, New York City, NY
Street Graffiti, West Bank, Israel

Crude sketches have been showing up on walls since the dawn of civilization. Neanderthal cave drawings have illustrated the trophy animals that were hunted for survival along with the artist’s hand print. American G.I.’s left the ubiquitous sketch of “Kilroy was here” throughout the arenas of World War II. My first trips to Mexico and Honduras immediately caught my attention as I passed the walls of buildings in whole communities covered in graffiti. It was generally accompanied with widespread littering along the road sides, especially on the outskirts of the towns. This isn’t a new problem, but it is a sort of “canary in a coal mine” indication that the people in these areas have succumbed to civil disobedience and apathy. Even poverty-stricken areas have the means to pick up their trash and not deface their own surroundings. I’ve witnessed graffiti on buildings from major cities like New York City to smaller communities like Bethlehem, Israel.

There are those who would claim some forms of graffiti in the cities are art, but it is plainly juvenile vandalism and blatant disrespect for civil order in their own neighborhoods. It always defaces the private property of someone else. In many cases in impoverished areas where someone is simply struggling to survive. In many cases, it represents criminal activity and worse. It’s a leading indicator that social controls and respect for law and order has disintegrated, making these public spaces vulnerable to even more serious civil disorder and law breaking. Disorder has been shown to breed fear in a neighborhood. That fear prompts those who have the means to leave, resulting in a further disintegration of facilities and order.

New York City embraced the academic “theory of broken windows” proposed by James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982. They observed that the physical disorder of broken windows, vacant buildings and trashed vacant lots lead to social disorder and fear among the inhabitants. I would add the ubiquitous presence of graffiti all over the community also contributes. However, these would all seem to be the symptoms of the more contentious root social problems of poverty, education, opportunity and a breakdown of the core family with a basic lack of respect for authority.

When New York City police commissioner William Bratton resigned in 1996 after pursuing a quality of life initiative to restore social order on the streets, felonies were down almost forty percent and the homicide rate had been halved. I’m concerned by all the social disorder these days in this country. We have systems in place to deal with our problems and violence has never been shown to be as effective as the peaceful civil disobedience practices of Gandhi, King and Christ. If we don’t learn from history, we’ll continue on our regressive path to once again be sketching animals on cave walls.

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