Want to do something about graffiti in Cuenca? This is not the way to do it

Sep 14, 2019 | 130 comments

Cuenca street art.

I recently read a call to arms to fight graffiti in Gringo Post and decided to attend the event to get a better understanding of the issues plaguing gringos. The advertisement went like this:

If you are tired of the tagging (not the beautiful murals) you are seeing on walls, columns, and storefronts on almost every street and want to help, then we need you.

We have set an open meeting time and date to explain the plan, answer questions and sign-up volunteers. Again, if you are frustrated with what you are seeing around our beautiful city then take the time and join us.

Kevin Donnelly: kevinfundonnelly@gmail.com 760 889 7600 WhatsApp. Call after: 8 AM.

A volunteer at a graffiti paint-over party last year.

Donnelly, a two-months-long resident in Ecuador from California, has set an ambitious goal for himself, and for the landscape of Cuenca. He will be happy with nothing less than the near-total elimination of graffiti throughout the city. His credentials are impressive. In his presentation he spoke of his success in eliminating graffiti in two places I am familiar with: Lake Arrowhead and Ventura, California.

The presentation began in fits and starts but soon enough, Donnelly got to the central theme of his plan — to establish a series of punitive tools that will identify and arrest teenage offenders.

It is unfortunate that a well-meaning man centers so much of his attention on the crime and punishment aspect of the graffiti problem instead of pursuing a holistic solution that considers why the kids are tagging in the first place. The intro was disappointing, verging on disturbing, to say the least.

Another volunteer.

Donnelly crowed: “I have access to a database that, once we collect enough information to identify the criminals defacing our city, we are going to capture them and then we are going to punish them.”

The crowd was fired up.

A woman sprang to her feet to say that tagging is very serious vandalism, it is the destruction of private property and should be considered a major crime.

Now, I  know property rights deserve attention but insisting that graffiti painted on a wall by a 15-year-old is a major crime, like murder or rape, seems a bit extreme to me. But then, I was clearly in the minority.

There was another “leg” on Donnelly’s “stool guaranteed to achieve success” that shocked me and thrilled members of the crowd.  A plan is being hatched to strap children with a debt far beyond, in most cases, their ability to pay. How cruel.

Folks who think that the police will aggressively enforce a $50 fine on some twelve- and thirteen-year-old kids for writing on a wall are simply out of touch with the local dynamics, not to mention Ecuador’s penal code. Will the city support charging the kid’s parents — who make $500 a month —  30% of their monthly wages for three scribbles on a wall?

Of course not.

Graffiti with a message on an El Centro wall.

In fact, folks in the crowd vehemently insisted that time and again they saw, with their own eyes, police officers ignoring a tagger. Call it what you will but I think it is simply a combination of an understanding the culture of the folks they are charged to protect plus a healthy dose of compassion.

Donnelly’s misguided approach is predicated on the standard that everything is rightfully monetized and weaponized, and that individual expression  — whatever it is —  if deemed unsatisfactory by a committee, is deserving of financial strain, and punitive measures, up to and including incarceration.

One person hollered, “Mouse! He is tagging everything! We need to catch him and put him away in jail! He is a criminal!” Others shook their heads in agreement.

I did not.

This aggressive posture to confront a serious problem does not reflect centuries-old Ecuadorian culture, particularly as it relates to the arts and artists. Our culture insists on large doses of tolerance, and acceptance. And as a result, harshly punishing children is frowned upon by the general population as being uncivilized even if it is not in other places.

I am well aware that tagging can be an irritating eyesore — and that solutions need to be found. But, I heard not a single thoughtful plan to divert teens’ attention or detailed consideration of why they tag in the first place and what plans might be devised to divert their energies. The notion of leaving that work to others — the police and the courts, in this case — is akin to building a house without giving thought to the foundation, or the materials needed to support growth in turbulent times.

It isn’t enough to punish children because — shock, shock — they grow up. Teaching art appreciation and caring for one’s community will produce far better long-term results than administering the scab of a criminal record, or the crush of teenage debt.

Robert Bradley

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