State officials must confront scourge of graffiti vandals

Entering and leaving our capital city can be impressive, with our burgeoning skyline of high rises, views of the river and harbor, and nice neighborhoods. But over the past few years, our views coming into and leaving Boston have been marred by rusted bridges, trash in the high weeds along the shoulders, and ubiquitous graffiti.

It is so bad that parts of our major thoroughfares look like they could fit into the set for a dystopian movie. It’s embarrassing, and it’s not getting dealt with by our state Department of Transportation (DOT), the agency responsible for most of the vandalized properties.

I have been highlighting these conditions along our highways and transit routes in this column for a few years. With the new administration, I decided to give some time to see if there would be action by the DOT to improve the maintenance of the major highways that serve Boston. But the paltry efforts at maintenance have been incredibly ineffective and done with seemingly no thought about how to prevent continuing problems. They must do better, and our legislators need to make sure they do. While there must be a lot of attention to our rusted-out bridges and highway trash, I’ll focus this column on graffiti.

I hate graffiti. The kind that has infected our capital city is mostly tagging, which is essentially a signature or logo for the person doing the graffiti, and sometimes is done by gangs marking their territory. I don’t care that some people see it as youthful (or adult) expression, or that its history goes back thousands of years. It’s vandalism and needs to be seen as a crime. It will cost tens of thousands of dollars to remove the paint or cover it over.

During my fifty years in Boston, I’ve seen several periods in which graffiti was out of control, and now we’re in another of those periods. It’s so bad that somehow graffiti vandals have been able to climb on top of signs that go over the turnpike and expressway to tag the signs above your head as you drive through. These highways do not shut down except for daily gridlock, so how someone can climb above the traffic and paint a tag without getting arrested is mystifying. In fact, one of these above the turnpike tags is just a few hundred yards from a State Police barracks!

The graffiti is typically about four feet tall by six feet wide, and usually with four letters that take up nearly all the four x six surfaces. There are many hundreds of such tags on the turnpike between Newton and the expressway interchange, and along the expressway into Milton.

When you drive along these highways, you’ll notice that there are many repeat tags every few hundred yards. The tags you see over and over are LIMO (also above the turnpike), PIZA (over the turnpike and on a building facing Mass Avenue in the South End), HYPH, MODE, LOUD, XIHO, SCUE, CHAPE, and many, many more.

Several months ago, the state’s Highway Department covered a couple of miles of graffiti in Newton along the turnpike with white paint. Why they decided on white paint over the granite stone bridges and other walls should be questioned, but at least they tried. The problem is that the spaces were immediately re-covered with tags. The same happened at the top of the wall along the expressway sound barriers in Savin Hill after the MBTA painted over the tags on the wall.

To be fair, in 2021, Joe Pesaturo, director of communications for the MBTA, acknowledged that the sound barriers are owned by the T, but that “unfortunately, it doesn’t take long for vandals to strike again after the barriers receive a fresh coat of paint.” I made the point that they should determine how to prevent re-covering by eliminating access to the wall.

In fact, there has been a fence that has been pulled down for many years, allowing graffiti vandals to easily get on the wall. If the T had dealt with the fence problem, that may have prevented re-tagging, but the fence is broken, and the wall quickly got re-tagged.

I also told him that there are ways to prevent graffiti, either by making it impossible to get access to the surfaces, placing lights and cameras along the walls, changing the material to something that graffiti can’t adhere to, or having artists paint scenery as is the case along the Neponset River rail trail, rather than put up with continuous graffiti. His response was that the cost of graffiti prevention is burdensome.

It’s time for the state and city to clean up the main roadways and transit routes that serve the city. To deal with graffiti, here are some recommendations. Call your elected officials and tell them it’s time to:

Charge the DOT with maintaining their highways and MBTA properties with trash and graffiti removal and prevention. Our legislators should make sure they actually do it.

Offer incentives to private property owners who tolerate graffiti to have it removed.

Hire experts to determine how to prevent re-covering of graffiti in each affected area. Fix fences and other access points. Use cameras and other technology to prevent additional tagging.

Increase fines for graffiti on public property up to an amount that is the cost of removal of graffiti.

Get the State Police to investigate who is tagging DOT sites in Boston and indict them for malicious destruction of property (over $250 in damage is a felony). Force them to pay for graffiti removal. The police can start with HYPH, PIZA, LIMO, MODE and XIHO. Get the word out that the Commonwealth is no longer tolerating graffiti vandalism.

Remove the graffiti with a prevention plan in place.

The so called “Broken Windows” theory to prevent crime has taken some hits in the past few years, but it is true that trashy areas and graffiti beget more of the same. Keep things clean and they tend to stay that way. Prosecuting those who vandalize will send a message that will stop this relentless vandalism. It’s time for the DOT to show some pride for our capital city.

Bill Walczak lives in Dorchester. His column appears regularly in the Reporter.

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