With autumn fast approaching, travelers through Bangor’s back alleys and hidden places will see a curious sight; a new invasive species — graffiti. The astute observer will see graffiti resembling the colorful mushrooms dotting our lawns and meadows after a cool autumn rain. As with mushrooms, graffiti spring up rapidly and proliferate with great speed.
Mushrooms prefer the dark and out-of-the-way places, just as graffiti prefer back alleys and spots hidden from the public eye. And just like mushrooms, they are a mere nuisance to some, while other graffiti are veritable poisonous toadstools, signs left by drug-dealing gangs or those with a violent political message.
But the most essential similarity between graffiti and their counterparts in the plant world is that they thrive on decomposition and decay and strike only when their hosts show a lowered resistance. If one seemingly harmless scrawl is tolerated, 20 are sure to follow. Without the appropriate countermeasures, graffiti grow at an exponential rate, until every unwatched and unattended public area drowns in a cascade of “urban folk art.”
Just as our public monuments are used to elevate and ennoble the thoughts of our citizens, graffiti demoralize a city and every twisted scrawl writes its own message on the heart of every resident. And that message is that society has succumbed to crime and social deviance.
When graffiti deface our public monuments, such as the statue of Hannibal Hamlin in Norumbega Parkway or the nearby cannon captured during the Spanish American War, the message is that our civilization is moribund and ripe for the taking.
If our legislators delay in addressing the problem of graffiti, Maine will soon lose its reputation for a place set apart, a healthy society that has avoided the problems of urban America. The effect on the tourist industry can easily be imagined. Portland has already succumbed in large measure to the plague of graffiti, but the problem there is not as bad as in Boston which, in turn, is not as bad as in New York.
What will be the effect when the plague spreads to the towns of Camden, Kennebunk and Wiscasset? The thought of graffiti scrawled on our historic homes along the coast is mind-numbing.
To the extent that graffiti are pieces of art, it is a highly individualistic response to the stress of urban life. The order, quietness and beauty of our public art is replaced by a proliferation of tangled forms, chaotic in its growth and loud and unambiguous in its intentions. The underlying message behind all graffiti is that an individual’s right to expression takes precedence over the right to private property. At worst, the message is that the right to do as one pleases takes precedence over all law and order.
Lest you think that all this is an exaggeration, be aware that the most common form of graffiti in the city of Bangor, one which occurs in scores of places including the walls near the old police station and the courthouse on High Street, is a crudely-drawn flower pot, sprouting a flower on which is inscribed the letter “A.”
The red letter “A” is, of course, the symbol of the anarchist movement. In some cases, this form of “urban folk art” has been stenciled in for the sake of speed and uniformity, a kind of mass-produced social protest, if you will. Clearly, someone is hoping graffiti will take root in Bangor and spread.
The time to end graffiti in Bangor is now, when the scourge is in its early stages. Graffiti will be difficult to eradicate completely, but without an effective response by our city fathers, we can reasonably expect that within a few short months the plague will intensify and spread until it is incurable.
Fritz Spencer of Old Town is the former editor of the Christian Civic League Record.