REPOZ: When I was younger, I would say like around 13 or 14, I would get on the train and as I would look out the window, I would see a bunch of graffiti, mainly tags. It kind of intrigued me. Later on, like as I got older, I wanted to do it too. I go by REPOZ, and I’m a Philadelphia graffiti artist.
REPOZ grew up in West Philadelphia. In high school, he began immersing himself in the city’s graffiti culture, learning everything he could. He watched other artists as they painted.
REPOZ: I was just soaking it all in because they were focused on their piece. I would just watch their arm movements, the way that they would use their body to, like, make certain lines, different techniques and stuff like that. That’s kind of how I picked it up.
But as REPOZ would learn, not everybody sees the poetry in graffiti. Where one person sees a liberating form of public art, another sees a nuisance — one that costs cities millions of dollars a year.
Tommy CONWAY: Beauty’s in the eye of the beholder. And my thing is, that’s great, but you can’t do it on someone else’s property.
For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: Graffiti.
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Most graffiti artists have an origin story for their name, and REPOZ is no exception.
REPOZ: When I was younger, I used to do mischief stuff, like going into abandoned buildings. This one place was like an abandoned house, and there was some spray paint in the basement, and I started, you know, just tagging on the walls and stuff. And then, we were taking some stuff that was left over or whatever. So, I was just writing “Repo,” because I felt like I was the Repo man.
REPOZ started out by tagging his name. But soon he began doing what are known as “pieces,” which are larger and more elaborate creations. He says that every city has its own unique graffiti style. And in Philadelphia, that style is called “wickets.” It was originated by a guy called Notorious Bik.
REPOZ: He created this technique where you have just a regular tag, but you elongate it to make it like a tall tag, right? And once you master the wickets, when you just put it up on the wall, just one time, people know, “Oh, this person is definitely from Philadelphia”
REPOZ comes from a long local tradition. In fact, most experts agree that Philly is where graffiti art originated — with an artist named Darryl McCray. He started spraying walls in the 1960s, under the moniker “Cornbread.” When the media wrongly reported that he had died in a gang-related shooting, he tagged “Cornbread” on an elephant at a Philadelphia Zoo — just to prove he was alive and well. Before Cornbread, most graffiti in Philadelphia was gang-related. But he inspired a new generation of artists who were in it for individual recognition.
City Hall did not take kindly to all of this graffiti. In the 1980s, the mayor’s office established the Anti-Graffiti Network. It later splintered into two different agencies — one of those became the Community Life Improvement Program, also known as CLIP.
CONWAY: We started with just 12 employees and a half million-dollar budget. And we created what was called zero-tolerance zones.
That’s Tommy Conway. He’s run the program since the very beginning.
CONWAY: We started on Broad Street, which is a major thoroughfare in the city. And at Spring Garden and worked our way north. But every day we would go back and any new retags of graffiti would be cleaned within 24 hours. After we did Broad Street, then we worked on Germantown Avenue. It just snowballed from there. We removed graffiti from 3,000 properties and street fixtures in our first year. Now we’re at about 185,000.
CROCKETT: 185,000 surfaces a year.
CONWAY: Properties and street fixtures. Street fixtures are our street furniture, like the poles, the signs, benches.
CROCKETT: Wow, all right — so we’re talking like 500 a day.
CONWAY: Yeah. Just imagine if we weren’t doing it.
Conway says the city spends around $3 million dollars a year removing graffiti from buildings, street signs, highway underpasses, and other conspicuous locations. Of course, Philly isn’t the only city that deals with graffiti. In Austin, Texas the annual cleanup bill is around half a million dollars; in San Francisco, it’s $20 million. Most estimates suggest that, altogether, the U.S. spends around $12 billion dollars annually on graffiti cleanup.
CONWAY: Quick removal is our biggest deterrent. When they put it up there, we try and get it down within a couple of days, and we’ve been pretty successful at that.
The services that CLIP provides are free. You just call the local non-emergency complaint line to file a graffiti report, and Conway sends one of his 14 in-house crews to clean it up. Other big cities — like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles — handle graffiti removal in much the same way. It’s become a necessary city service. And Conway says the work has benefited everyone.
CONWAY: When you have graffiti in your community, it’s a sign that folks don’t care. And lawlessness and graffiti unchecked breeds other graffiti. So it’d just continue and then creates trash and litter and a sense of hopelessness. So, cleaning it up was very good for business.
Some reports have suggested that graffiti leads to reduced retail sales, declines in property value, and lost revenue from less ridership on transit systems. There isn’t a lot of hard data to back up those assertions. But Conway takes them to heart. He says that last year, CLIP received around 30,000 calls for graffiti removal, and that they take down pretty much everything that gets reported. Only a few exceptions are made.
CONWAY: Sometimes if there’s an issue with the graffiti — for instance, if it’s in memorial of somebody. we will work with the police department and give the family time, we’ll leave it up there for a couple of weeks until after the burial. Then we would take it down. That’s one instance. And the other ones are if it’s on the top of a Center City building. And the graffiti is not the major issue, but someone’s getting on your roof so that’s more of a safety concern for them. There’s a couple locations — one that pops in my head is like off of Fifth Street where it was a junkyard that the entire wall was many different pieces. And the community didn’t care. And it was very colorful. So we left that there, and it’s still there to this day.
REPOZ says that most graffiti artists follow an informal code of conduct when it comes to choosing a location for their art.
REPOZ: One of the main rules is you don’t write on people’s personal property — you know, like cars and churches. You don’t go over things of that sort. You want to hit, like, abandoned places.
In Philadelphia, one of those abandoned places is Graffiti Pier, on the banks of the Delaware River. It’s on the underside of a vacant railway spur. And what you see is row after row of concrete support columns in technicolor; a place where street artists can paint without worrying about rules. Tags cover tags, cover pieces, cover tags. It’s really something.
REPOZ: I went to pretty much practice. But I wanted my name to live, so I put my name up, up high, all over Graffiti Pier.
Graffiti Pier has become a popular destination — not just for artists, but for Instagrammers and tourists. The city of Philadelphia has taken note of this popularity. And it’s been working on another approach to graffiti — one that treats it as a benefit rather than a cost. That’s coming up.
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In the early 1980s, Philadelphia’s approach to graffiti was mostly punitive, and focused on removal. But the city realized that something positive could come out of this public art. So they brought in a young artist named Jane Golden to convince taggers to paint city-funded murals instead.
GOLDEN: I started talking to graffiti writers, trying to understand why they wrote on walls, and trying to figure out how we could design a program that would be palatable and not punitive. Because I was really taken by a lot of the graffiti art I saw around the city, and it was sort of reminiscent of abstract expressionism to me. So I felt like, “Oh, there’s a lot of talent out there.”
At first, she met resistance from graffiti artists.
GOLDEN: There were a contingent of young people that just wouldn’t sign up for that. I’d meet them, wherever they wanted to meet, behind a rec center, like a corner store. And so I had a connection to the broader graffiti world. And I think I understood that rebellion and the desire to live outside the system.
And the challenge didn’t stop there.
GOLDEN: Then the resistance came from the formal part of the art world, because
people would say to me, “You all are not doing public art.” And I’d be like, “Well, we’re in public doing art — so, what do you think we’re doing?”
Golden eventually convinced both sides that street art could add value to the city. Today, she’s the executive director of Mural Arts Philadelphia, the largest public art program in the country. By most accounts, Mural Arts has been a success. The city now has around 4,000 murals. And earlier this year, USA Today designated Philly “The Best City in America for Street Art.”
In 2015, the Yale School of Medicine published a study showing positive effects on the mental health of both the artists and the neighbors where such projects were installed. But artists like REPOZ say that, while the program has done meaningful work, things are complicated.
REPOZ: I’ve done murals with Mural Arts, so I kind of play both sides. I don’t mind working with them — I don’t feel like it’s selling out. My thing is: why do they put certain murals in certain areas? Is it for gentrification reasons? Because it just seems like that for me sometimes, and for a lot of graf writers, especially because it goes into like a racial kind of thing. So, you do have Black people who write and you have white people who write, but what are the murals really for? Are they really beautifying the city, or is Mural Arts using people of color to capitalize off of what they do as an art?
Mural Arts says it budgets anywhere from $25,000 to $50,000 dollars to make a mural, depending on the size and the scope of the work. Around $3,000 to $10,000 of that is shared between the artists. REPOZ says he took home around $1,200 when he painted a mural with the program. That’s much less than the fees he says he’s earned on the open market, where some businesses use street art to draw customers.
REPOZ: If I go get a wall on my own, I can make $40,000, $60,000, depending, you know? So there’s definitely a big difference. I’ve worked with Foot Locker, I’ve worked with regular residential people, but for the most part I just reach out to people in the community.
Now, the big question here is whether or not the city’s efforts have led to a decrease in Philadelphia’s graffiti problem. The answer is: sort of. The combination of removal crews and the mural program seemed to be working well for a while. And then, Covid happened.
GOLDEN: Since Covid, graffiti in our city has gone up and our underpass walls in particular are vulnerable to graffiti. And this is a puzzle for me, right? Because for so long it was not the case.
Tommy Conway, of CLIP, has a theory.
CONWAY: The pandemic created a whole new breed of graffiti vandal, because people were stuck home, they were bored. It took us probably a good two years to get it back under control to where it is today.
REPOZ says that, these days, he and his fellow graffiti artists are again outmatched.
REPOZ: They’re winning big time.
And whenever Tommy Conway’s removal crews feel like they’re up against an impossible task, he likes to remind them of a simple fact.
CONWAY: I like to just tell the guys we have more paint than they do
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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by Julie Kanfer and Sarah Lilley, with help from Lyric Bowditch. It was mixed by Jeremy Johnston.
CONWAY: I showed President Bush how to power wash.
CROCKETT: You’re kidding me.
CONWAY: I remember saying to the Secret Service, he shouldn’t really be power washing because the people with the cameras behind him were all getting hit with pieces of you know, bricks. And they’re like, you don’t tell the president what to do.
- “Philadelphia Graffiti Pier: A Love Letter to the City’s Underground Arts,” by Honora Feinberg (Guide to Philly, 2023).
- “USA TODAY Names Philadelphia ‘Best City for Street Art,'” (Visit Philadelphia, 2023).
- “Cornbread, the First Graffiti Artist, Shows New Work at Philadelphia Gallery,” by Peter Crimmins (WHYY, 2019).
- “Porch Light Program: Final Evaluation Report,” by Jacob Kraemer Tebes, Samantha L. Matlin, Bronwyn Hunter, Azure B. Thompson, Dana M. Prince, and Nathaniel Mohatt (Yale School of Medicine, 2015).
- “Graffiti Triggers Crime, Littering, Study Shows,” by Jeanna Bryner (NBC News, 2008).
- “Problem-Oriented Guides for Police: Graffiti,” by Deborah Lamm Weisel (D.O.J. Office of Community Oriented Policing Services, 2004).
- “Urinetown,” by Tell Me Something I Don’t Know (2017).