BANGOR, Maine — Some people spoke in broad strokes while others were very detailed, but everyone present at Wednesday night’s Bangor City Council government operations committee meeting agreed that Bangor has a graffiti problem.
“Graffiti is very hard for us to police. It is a challenge,” said Bangor police Lt. Mark Hathaway. “It’s very difficult to catch them in the act. It most certainly is a manpower issue.”
City councilors, staff like City Manager Cathy Conlow, City Solicitor Norm Heitmann, Code Enforcement Officer Jeremy Martin and Public Works Director Dana Wardwell addressed the issue at a public meeting also attended by about 30 residents.
“We paid $4,800 in the second half of fiscal year 2012 and $1,800 so far in FY 2013 to clean or replace about 200 signs over the past year,” Wardwell told the five councilors present. “I’m estimating $10,000 to $15,000 a year is spent to clean up graffiti.”
The 95-minute meeting offered everything from complaints to potential remedies, penalties and even some alternatives to lessen graffiti vandalism, which has appeared on street signs, bridges, storefronts, mailboxes and the sides of buildings.
“It’s aggravating to me that people try to force this ‘art’ on our building,” said Nick Carter, a maintenance person at the Hammond Street Senior Center. “I don’t think we should settle for allowing our property to be defaced.”
Maria Mason, who is employed at the Rudman & Winchell law firm on Harlow Street, came to the podium to emphasize the difference between art and obscene graffiti, which is spray painted regularly on the walls of the alleys that the firm’s building sits between.
“Our customers shouldn’t have to see obscene language on our walls as they come into our office,” Mason said. “It takes a lot of time to clean up, and a lot of times, it’s back before the invoice comes for the last repainting job.”
Several people suggested Bangor take a page from Portland’s playbook for dealing with graffiti by establishing one or more public or common walls or structures which local “street” or graffiti artists could use to showcase their spray painting skills.
Meg Shorette, executive director of the nonprofit KahBang Arts festival, fellow KahBang organizer Alicia Champlin, Bangor resident and art enthusiast Alba Briggs and Nelo Pidgin urged councilors to establish a wall or mural.
“Let’s open up conversation and inform them of ways to do street art that’s less destructive,” Champlin said. “Instead of using a hammer to beat an idea over their heads, let’s use a paintbrush.”
Shorette talked about a 40-foot “tag wall” that was offered at this year’s KahBang festival which featured space for artists to paint.
“We were kind of worried about what we might get, but several of the designs were amazing and a lot of them painted over the objectionable things a few put on there,” Shorette said.
Other options and alternatives that were suggested included increased fines, jail time and much more creative punishments.
“I’m a real big fan of restorative justice,” said one Bangor resident. “I think forcing them to clean up their graffiti would mean a lot more and make more of an impression.”
In Portland, it’s against the law to apply graffiti or carry graffiti implements — the spray cans and markers used by people who “tag” public or private property.
The implement option was supported by Hathaway.
“I do like the idea of policing people and restricting or confiscating tools like paint cans when it’s obviously what they’re being used for,” he said. “I’m not sure increased fines would help, but that would be helpful.”
Heitmann said Bangor currently has no anti-graffiti ordinance, but does have a $20 fine for crude or vulgar drawings, and the option of a criminal mischief charge by police, which is a Class D offense involving jail time.
“I think what we’ll look at is trying to reduce the problem through creative penalties with our ordinance language and also try to be creative on providing an outlet for people who have some artistic ability, but don’t have a canvas large enough of their own to put it on,” Heitmann said.
Sam Lanham of Lanham and Blackwell law firm in Bangor also supported the idea of a public graffiti wall, despite his firm being victimized by graffiti on more than one occasion.
“I think there’s a need for our young people for a form of expression or a way to be recognized and noticed, while also respecting private and public property,” he said.
Councilor Charlie Longo, who was a prime backer for Wednesday’s meeting, said he hopes to have Heitmann draft some potential ordinance language and report back to the council committee in a month.