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Local Democracy and Public Spaces in Contest: Graffiti in San Francisco


Graffiti are illegal inscriptions on private property and in public spaces and, as such, they are commonly regarded as vandalism, a blight, a crime, an attack on private property, and a deterioration of the quality of life. Since the 1990s, many cities throughout the world and particularly in the United States have launched a “war on graffiti.” San Francisco has been one of the leaders in this respect: its 1994 Graffiti Removal and Abatement Ordinance (ordinance 29-94) was reinforced a decade later by the 2004 Blight Ordinance (ordinance 263-04) and in 2008 by the Community Preservation and Blight Reduction Act (ordinance 256-08). As an outcome of this series of stricter and stricter policies, the owners of property bearing graffiti must remove it, or they may request a public hearing, within thirty days of the notice. If no steps are taken within thirty days the city removes the graffiti and may charge up to $500 plus an attorney’s fee. In practice, the city’s Department of Public Works alone spends more than $20 million a year removing graffiti, while the Municipal transit system spends approximately $12 million. But this did not happen in a socioeconomic vacuum. The value of real estate in San Francisco has skyrocketed since the early 1990s, especially since the late 1990s’ dotcom bubble, and it is currently being pushed by the new tech bubble. Nor did this happen in a political vacuum: the quality of life rhetoric in whose name graffiti has been targeted has a strong neoliberal subtext-as is famously known of New York since the Giuliani administration in the 1990s. But the point is that San Francisco is not New York: the city by the Bay has a strong history of civic engagement and of contested urban policies-especially since the urban growth period of the 1960s and 1970s. San Francisco is known for its liberalism, both in the sense of individual liberties and left-wing politicization: it is both representative of a strong attachment to freedom of expression in the United States and exceptional compared to how depoliticized American society is. While San Francisco is neither the only city to have been fighting against graffiti since the 1990s, nor has done so more aggressively than other cities, the question remains how its resolute anti-graffiti policy gets reconciled with its liberalism. Here lies the originality of San Francisco’s approach to graffiti, which mobilizes the same sort of localized, community-based democratic rhetoric and assets as its reputed liberal commitment to social welfare policies. This response includes innovative policies aimed to curb graffiti by generating other forms of visual intervention and civic engagement, thus partly incorporating the very language and resources of street art, such that the offensiveness of graffiti’s contestation of public spaces gets called into question by the policies conducted in the name of local democracy. This chapter examines how graffiti triggers conflicting conceptions of civic participation and empowerment, by highlighting the on-going contestation of democracy involved in the local politics of public spaces. In this study, based on fieldwork-photographic records and interviews with city officials, anti-graffiti campaign participants, and graffiti authors-we focus on the contested repertoire of grassroots mobilization, which both graffiti and some anti-graffiti policies in San Francisco tap into. My data suggest that graffiti and anti-graffiti policies in San Francisco raise the issue of how and by whom quality of life, appropriate public expression, and the desirable aspect of urban spaces are to be defined. Can graffiti then be regarded as a form of counter-democracy, or what kind of graffiti do, or under what conditions?
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hal-01790647 , version 1 (13-05-2018)


  • HAL Id : hal-01790647 , version 1


Guillaume Marche. Local Democracy and Public Spaces in Contest: Graffiti in San Francisco. Democracy, Participation and Contestation. Civil Society, Governance and the Future of Liberal Democracy, Routledge, pp.236-252, 2014, 9781138683631. ⟨hal-01790647⟩


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