How one Philadelphia neighborhood is battling graffiti

Mt. Airy’s Business Improvement District (BID) will take the lead in putting together a community meeting to address an on-going graffiti problem in the neighborhood.  BID’s Executive Director, Hollie Malamud-Price confirmed that the association’s Clean and Safe Committee had agreed to spearhead the effort. “It’s a natural role for the BID,” Malamud-Price stated.Malamud-Price said BID will organize the effort between West Mount Airy Neighbors (WMAN), East Mount Airy Neighbors (EMAN), the 14th District Police Department, SEPTA and the Community Life Improvement Programs’ (CLIP) Anti-Graffiti Network.  A meeting date has not yet been set, but is expected to be held sometime in June.  The goal will be to create a graffiti task force.  

It Began With One Neighbor’s Call For ActionBID’s decision comes on the heels of a dedicated push by concerned neighbor turned activist, Kelly O’Day.  O’Day met with BID’s Clean & Safe Committee in hopes of forming a graffiti watch and task force comprised of volunteers with the following objectives: •    build greater awareness of the issue •    create a monitoring & reporting network •    streamline removal, with a commitment to remove all tags within 48 hours •    work with police towards preventionO’Day, a retired environmental engineer, has been documenting Mt. Airy’s graffiti incidents on his blog for the past two years.   In a solo effort thus far, O’Day has taken it upon himself to drive around Mt. Airy on a hunt for new tags in an ever widening circle from his home.  He sees graffiti as an important quality of life issue that needs urgent attention.  Communities plagued by graffiti give off the impression that no one cares and that has a negative impact on local economies, particularly real estate. “It communicates that there is no control,” O’Day elaborated. O’Day said the recent scourge began this past February.  “We’re being invaded,” he exclaimed.  The fear is that the neighborhood will fall victim to increased graffiti bombs in the warmer summer months.  “If we don’t control it, it will be like North Philadelphia,” O’Day asserted.

The graffiti that has been discoveredGraffiti comes in all styles, with the difference between tagging and street art coming down to a matter of what kind of mark one wants to leave in the world – a juvenile display merely branding territory or something that communicates more.  O’Day acknowledged there is a line where graffiti can become art.  An example of that, he noted includes pieces done by the Mural Arts Project.  However, O’Day maintains that all “art without permission is graffiti,” even street art such as wheatpastes and yarn bombs.Nearly all of the graffiti seen in Mt. Airy has been tagging – quickly executed scrawled signatures. Malamud-Price said that along Germantown Avenue Big Belly trash receptacles are a prime target.  She also noted that Brewer’s Outlet has been “constantly hit,” more than any other business owner on the commercial corridor.  SEPTA stops, particularly along the R7 ad R8 rail lines are other favorite hot spots.  One of the most prolific tags being seen is “RAS13”. O’Day said that tag has been done in about 10 different styles, causing him to question whether there may be more than one vandal responsible.  While he is not sure if that is indicative of a gang or simply a crew, O’Day does believe the culprits are Mt. Airy residents who tend to make their mark at night.Is Eradication Possible?O’Day praised BID’s dedicated graffiti removal efforts along Germantown Avenue, but noted that the problem extends through-out the neighborhood well beyond BID’s jurisdiction. O’Day has been working with CLIP and SEPTA to resolve some of the graffiti tags seen in other areas, but said reporting and removal are only one part of the solution.  More effort needs to be directed towards identification and prevention. O’Day said his ultimate goal is to build and implement a volunteer based city-wide graffiti database project.  He hopes to provide others with a set of tools in order to aid a larger network to do the mapping of occurrences and diagnosis through analysis.  O’Day, who admits he likes the detective work, said he understands that the police department has limited resources yet needs this kind of intelligence in order to eradicate the problem.  O’Day hopes that the Mt. Airy graffiti task force will be able to eventually identify the current vandals.  He would like to see the 14th District Police approach local schools with the data he has already collected to try and locate the offenders.  If caught, O’Day would like to see parents of underage vandals held responsible for property damage and the costs of graffiti removal by way of fines. He feels incarceration for repeat offenders may be a serious enough consequence to halt further graffiti.  “Parents have a role in this,”  O’Day said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.