Motorists driving down Highway 40 under Tamm Avenue in the wee hours of July 19, 2007, reported seeing graffiti artists at work on the pristine white concrete of the overpass wall. Before fleeing the scene, the men left their trademarks, or tags, in big bubble letters.
St. Louis police later caught two suspects north of the highway, and they also found backpacks loaded with sixteen cans of spray paint. Both men were charged with felony property damage. The incident set off alarm bells for south St. Louis Alderwoman Donna Baringer, who says she realized that the new overpasses and noise barriers going up along Highway 40 will be a prime target for vandals.
"Those walls will be seen as empty canvases to do artistic work," says Baringer, who serves the 16th Ward. "But we will have to have it removed and the state — us taxpayers — will end up paying for it."
After doing some research into the world of graffiti, Baringer learned that the ornate, multicolored art is known as tagging and that its renegade practitioners tend to be 18- to 25-year-old white men.
Baringer maintains that the best way to stop them is to enact legislation that will basically treat spray paint and markers like weapons: restricting who can buy them, requiring buyers to show ID, and introducing a new criminal penalty for illegal possession.
"Is it going to stop [graffiti] or end it or eliminate it? No," she says. "But is it going to enhance or make it easier for police to follow up and investigate? Yes."
St. Louis wouldn't be the first city to crack down on spray-paint sales. Minneapolis, Albuquerque and Memphis are among the cities that have adopted anti-graffiti laws in recent years, says Bob Hills, director of the Anti-Graffiti Project of the National Council to Prevent Delinquency. The most common approach, he says, is to ban spray-paint sales to anyone under 18 and keep it under lock and key.
Elected in 2003, the 45-year-old Baringer says she's following the Anti-Graffiti Project's lead. If her own bill passes, she plans to talk it up among mayors throughout Missouri. "I will turn it over to them. They're waiting for it," she says.
First, though, the alderwoman has to move her Board Bill No. 86 past the Board of Alderman Public Safety Committee, where she says several members support her. A hearing is scheduled June 5.
The core of the bill deals with "graffiti tools," which includes spray paint, paint sticks, fat-tipped markers and glass-etching devices. The bill bans sales to anyone under 18, and requires adults who want to buy three or more of the blacklisted implements to present a photo ID.
The bill puts the onus on stores to keep records of the sales and buyers' personal information for a year, and be willing to hand that information over to police. Shopkeepers would also have to put up signs, which the bill describes as "not less than 12 inches by 18 inches," that state: "It is illegal for a person to purchase or possess aerosol spray paint containers or any other graffiti tool for the express illegal purpose of graffiti per St. Louis City Ordinance."
Finally, Baringer's measure goes so far as to make it illegal to possess "graffiti tools" on public or private property without the owner's consent. Illegal possession would be a misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine or up to 90 days in jail.
Earlier this year Colorado police lobbied lawmakers to make possessing "graffiti tools" a crime, akin to getting caught with burglary tools. According to the Denver Post, the proposal died quickly, with one opposing legislator saying it would give "carte blanche for law enforcement to go after teenagers."
While Baringer cites "broad support" among her colleagues, the chairman of the public safety committee, Alderman Terry Kennedy, is not convinced that cracking down on paint sales is the way to go, and says the idea strikes him as "rather excessive." Kennedy, whose 18th Ward includes part of the Central West End, adds, "I certainly understand the concern and what they're trying to address. Requiring people to give them ID on three cans of paint isn't going to resolve it."
If the city regulates the sale of spray paint, Kennedy wonders, "What's next?"
Peat Wollaeger, a studio artist who makes graffiti-style stencils, doesn't see how a city can effectively ban artists' tools. He says taggers are always trying new things, the latest being water cannons filled with house paint. "That ban would do nothing to stop that type of activity."
While Baringer arms herself with statistics and anecdotes to prove that there's an escalating graffiti menace, Wollaeger sounds almost blasé. "St. Louis has such a small group of graffiti artists, it's not even worth it."