Truth, when discovered, is readily apparent, but error is often well hidden. Hence the world’s greatest detective, Sherlock Holmes, is customarily shown with an unnaturally large magnifying glass, eyes narrowed, as he scrutinizes the nearly invisible evidence of a crime.
No such instrument is needed to reveal the plague of graffiti spreading across Bangor. Nor is a linguist like Holmes needed to decipher the message buried in the twists and scrawls that give graffiti a weed-like appearance.
Often the message is merely a personal statement, a hastily scrawled name that serves as an autograph or endorsement of anti-social behavior. In other cases, the meaning of the particular graffito is known only to a loose association of vandals, as is the pattern in hate crimes.
The work of vandalism may have a political motive, as in the case of a giant red letter A, the symbol preferred by anarchists. In this case, the graffiti is well planned and organized, although the message remains obscure outside a select, well-defined group.
Gang tags are the most dangerous form of graffiti and are used by scores of violent gangs across the country to mark out drug territory. Graffiti resembling the gang tag of a Los Angeles gang was found scrawled on a vacant building in Augusta, three blocks from the State House.
Although the purpose and motives of graffiti vandals vary, the message of the graffiti itself is always the same: a hasty proclamation against reason and right order.
Graffiti expresses the belief that the individual will takes precedence over social order, and hence graffiti is more than a property crime, it is a public expression of the essence of all crime.
If graffiti is weed-like in its appearance and manner of growth, and much like the weeds which overrun a well-tended garden, this resemblance results from a wrong concept of freedom and is the outgrowth of the belief that each member of society is free to do as he or she will, provided there is no infringing on the rights of others.
A society that has as its highest goal the enlarging of personal freedom will eventually see the expression of its highest aspirations — its finest architecture and its noblest public monuments — written over and obliterated by those whose highest goal is the expression of the individual will.
The failure to prevent and remove graffiti is a public acknowledgement that society is willing to put order on a par with disorder, ugliness with beauty and crime with civic virtue. Graffiti will spread from a back alley to the statue of a statesman, rising from what is low to what is high, much like dodder slowly climbs from the ground to choke the life out of a rose.
This, of course, is the harbinger of utter social collapse — in the words of one property owner in downtown Bangor: “Proof that we have lost the neighborhood.” Graffiti is thus the most pressing problem confronting the city and the state.
The slide from right order into the realm of social collapse consists of three phases. First, good and evil are confused. Second, evil is done in the name of good. Last of all, evil is done for the sake of evil.
Graffiti lies somewhere on the boundary between these last two phases. By tolerating graffiti, society gives its sanction and approval to public expressions of malice. The worst forms of graffiti are just that, a public proclamation that evil is spreading and is eager to challenge and supplant the good.
What started as an isolated scrawl in a dark and hidden place is spreading to our very doorsteps, and nowhere is the threat greater than here in Maine, where we enjoy a reputation as a place set apart from the problems that afflict urban America.
For this reason, the city fathers and the Maine Legislature must now give the highest priority to enacting the strictest anti-graffiti laws in the nation.
Fritz Spencer of Old Town is the former editor of the Christian Civic League RECORD.