Tag, You're It

It may be a practice dating back to ancient Rome, when primitive drawings announcing "Mongo was here!" decorated the walls of caves, but The Bird says "Beware!" to local graffiti artists and taggers: Our cultural wasteland isn't your canvas so much as a dragnet waiting to drop on your spray-paint-stained heads.

Okay, so taggers have always known that it's illegal to adorn public buildings with their designs and slogans. But a new crackdown by Maricopa County Attorney Andy Thomas and company will see those adorning public and private property get handed hefty fines, jail time, and -- worse yet for young would-be gangstas living in our car culture -- suspended drivers' licenses.

Seems the County Attorney's Office set up a 60-day sting targeting taggers and graffiti artists, eventually snagging four Phoenix juveniles who'd adorned a construction trailer and a couple of exterior walls at Brophy College Preparatory School on Central Avenue with their multicolored murals. The sneaky cops behind the sting set up a fake office on Central Avenue, then distributed fliers claiming they were making a documentary about graffiti artists in the Valley. The poor slobs who responded got hauled in and will -- if Reichsführer Thomas has his way -- have their young lives ruined. Two were charged with misdemeanor counts of damage by graffiti; the others with multiple felony counts of criminal damage. All of the kids are under 18, but Andy reportedly wants to transfer them to adult court to ensure that they receive ridiculously severe punishments.

The Bird could understand why Thomas would want to lay the wood to these cherubs if they were Mexican immigrants, because as reported frequently in these pages, the only county resident of Hispanic heritage he seems to revere is his own lovely wife. Even though Thomas comes across as the sissy you beat up on the playground, he's played redneck-pleasing racial politics to the hilt by doing everything in and out of his power to make Hispanics look like benefits-sucking scumbags.

Now the pasty prosecutor's attacking kids with spray-cans with the same vengeance.

"There's nothing cultural or artistic about defacing public and private property," Thomas announced at a subsequent press conference. "Graffiti vandalism represents a threat not just to property but to society as well. . . . Graffiti challenges our sense of order, and to the extent that you let people graffiti property, you're sending a message that other members of the criminal element can get away with worse."

Right, Andy, hardened criminals consider kids with baseball caps on backward as role models.

Andy's especially pissed that these dang delinquents had the nerve to deface Brophy Prep, because it's a Catholic institution and therefore God resides there. "Anyone who would deface Brophy High School to the tune of $5,000, that's a serious matter," Andy told the Arizona Republic.

When Andy talks tough, it gives this feathered fiend goose steps (uh, bumps).

But the joke's apparently on Andy, because the guys who got busted are what's known as "toys" in the world of graffiti artistry. That is, they aren't even respected by "serious" graffitists, the majority of whom around here (unlike places like Los Angeles) are hardly gangbangers themselves. See, part of the game's not getting caught, and these rookies have no cred among those who are really into putting art on buildings. (The graffiti artist's code is to only draw on public buildings or private ones that house schools or businesses. Brophy would qualify.)

"The whole bust is shady," declared Age, a local graffiti artist of some renown. "They cornered kids who aren't even part of the scene, really. Anyone who responded to this Hollywood movie scheme was going to get nailed. And the people who are bombing the city with graffiti wouldn't touch something like that with a 10-foot pole unless it came from someone with inside cred -- someone we know and trust saying 'this movie thing is real.' And, anyway, the people who do real graffiti don't want to be known. It's not about fame, it's about anonymous art."

The bogus movie sting cost county taxpayers $8,000, not including investigators' salaries.

Ken Lynch, spokesman for Phoenix's Neighborhood Services Department, admitted to this pesky pecker that treating taggers like felons doesn't work.

"The allure of tagging is that it's illegal," said Lynch, whose office had nothing to do with the recent sting by Thomas' people. "That's what makes it glamorous. The most effective way to eradicate graffiti is to just keep painting over it, which frustrates the taggers."

Lynch swore that, since January, his department's Graffiti Busters group has seen "an explosion" of civilians who want to be trained to use the "cover-it-up" paint sprayers offered by the city for graffiti cleanup.

Bet those paint sprayers cost a bundle. But as with most things around here, there's a ton of money getting wasted on busting kids who want to go to war with public art as their weapons. Phoenix actually pays informants up to $250 for tips leading to graffiti-related arrests, and it's one of only a few cities that employs surveillance cameras to catch street artists with motion-activated "flash cams" that issue audio warnings and then photograph vandals in action.

What's more, according to Lynch, the Phoenix City Council recently approved $300,000 toward increasing the Graffiti Busters staff. This foul fowl can't be the only bird brain who thinks -- since no big city will ever be able to do away with graffiti -- that taxpayer dollars would be better spent on erecting graffiti-safe zones, where the tagging crowd could spray to its heart's content. Hell, it would beat most of what passes for public art around here.

Patriots Square Park, The Bird rests its case!

"You're never going to get rid of graffiti," Age promised this prying pigeon. "This cover-it-up approach is a waste of money, and the cops are wasting time, because they tagged kids who aren't really in the scene. [The cops] were just looking to put a face on the crime. You can't get mad at them for busting someone, because they're just doing their job. And when graffiti artists do a beautiful painting on the side of a building, they're just doing their jobs, too."

Age schooled The Bird that "there's a huge distinction between tagging and graffiti. Tagging's just writing on any building. Graffiti's art. And so graffiti's a gift to the city."

Film Fabulists

The Bird receives its fair share of mail, most of it calling for its beady-eyed head on a platter. But last week this cantankerous crow was all but buried in piles of hate mail about its rant on that silly 9/11 film Loose Change ("Goofball Shockumentary," April 27). This independent effort by three New York youngsters attempts to describe how what happened on September 11, 2001, was a fiendish plot to take over the world with fake terrorist attacks meant to dupe Americans into believing that Muslims hate us, so that our president, the sock puppet, could declare war on Iraq.

"If The Bird still thinks George W. is really the one running the country," wrote Cave Creek's Mark Mansfield, "or continues to dismiss the hard and irrefutable facts [about 9/11] because the logical conclusion is a difficult one, then that Bird's brain is small indeed."

It's true, a 747-load of letter-writers questioned this faux falcon's intelligence, but not because they're any smarter than a bird brain: After all, almost all of them were stupid enough to fall hard for a film that's painfully short on documented facts. The Bird's not saying it wasn't an excellent piece of propaganda in the vein of Michael Moore (though Moore's films are far more rationally thought out), it's saying that the film's premises are too fantastic to be taken literally.

Wrote Mike Meyer of Tempe: "I'm an engineer, who has worked many years in aerospace. I have studied the events around 911 in great detail. While I cannot explain what really happened, an educated evaluation of the data leads to some very big, very unanswered questions. To believe the official version of events without question is simply foolish. To rip Loose Change without contemplating the evidence is shameful."

What evidence? The film's only "asking questions," according to even the filmmakers. Which's what The Bird tried to do after a showing of the so-called "documentary" at 3 Roots Cafe in Tempe. No answers were forthcoming from the trio of celluloid fabulists, and none came in either from the readers who questioned The Bird's intellect.

Just a lot of howling at the moon.

Some letter-writers were enraged that this columnist dared to refer to poor Carrie Jones, the community college professor who introduced the film when it was screened in Tempe, as "fucking stupid."

Wrote Phoenix's own Sarah Sanders: "Your reporter attacked an educator at Scottsdale Community College for doing what every good educator should do: Bring innovative ideas to the classroom."

Sorry, Sarah, but your pal Carrie wasn't bringing anything to the classroom when The Bird saw her. She was merely standing up in a coffee shop and endorsing the message of a film she had no involvement in making.

Eric of Sacramento, California, was more concerned with physics than with bashing The Bird: "Sir, please tell me how a 757 can fit through a 16-foot hole [in the Pentagon]?" wrote Eric, to which The Bird can only reply, "Easy, Eric: Purée it first."

It was clear, after the first 20 or so letters, that The Bird hadn't touched a nerve among high-minded intellectuals so much as it had dared to question a conspiracy theory that's dear to a wide group of geekazoids who have lots of spare time now that George Lucas has stopped making Star Wars movies.

Would it help you conclusion-jumpers feel better if The Bird wrote: "You're right! President Bush is the guy behind the 9/11 attacks! Those buildings were secretly imploded, and that hole in the Pentagon was made by a specially designed missile left over from the set of Irwin Allen's Lost in Space!"?

This prying pigeon's got to admit, it would make a hell of a story -- one that the aforementioned Dubya-hating New York Times would've been all over by now.

The Bird thinks that Sacramento Eric said it best when he wrote, "I can go on and on but to not waste yours and my time anymore, I leave you with a plea for open-mindedness and God bless all."

Thank you, Eric. But this foul fowl is open-minded. It's just that, if you've studied the events of 9/11, most of what Loose Change proposes is fucking impossible. As in, it just doesn't compute. As in, sure, this caustic canary hates the Bush/Cheney gangsters as much as the next feather-brain, but it doesn't believe they're smart enough -- much less evil enough -- to instigate an attack on their own country and get away with it.

Oh, that's right, they haven't gotten away with it. The little kids who made Loose Change have figured it all out.

Bogus Remedy

What happens if you devote about $5 million to advertisements detailing the horror of crystal meth, only to see the drug's popularity increase among people who've seen the ads?

The Bird's got a few ideas. You could raise another $8 million to run more ads. You could lobby other people to start running them, too. And, for all that, you could get painted as a hero by the media.

As New Times reported two weeks ago ("Meth Madness," April 27), the Montana Meth Project, a daring experiment that blanketed the rural state with $5 million in anti-meth ads, released its first official report last month.

The Montana campaign matters in Arizona because state and county leaders hope to bring the ads here. And rather than have them financed by a wealthy resident like Montana did, they want to use our tax dollars.

So it's a real bummer, at least to this spaced-out sparrow, that the news from Montana wasn't good: The survey showed a 3 percent increase in teens who "strongly approved" of regular meth use. There was also a 5 percent drop in teens who associated "great or moderate" risk with regular use of the drug.

The report didn't exactly trumpet the bad news; the statistics were buried in the back in raw data sets, while the front of the report focused on good news (like that more parents are discussing meth use with their kids). The entire report is available online (; it's not like it's hard to get.

And yet the release of the statistics was met with . . . silence.

Never mind that everyone from the New York Times to CBS' Early Show had devoted considerable time to hyping the project. Never mind that the Arizona Republic, bizarrely and inexplicably, had credited the ad campaign with a 30 percent drop in meth use. (Per the project's own statistics, the percentage of those surveyed who fessed up to trying the drug actually increased.)

According to this pissed-off pelican's research, not a single media outlet in the country has bothered to report that the much-vaunted project's apparently a bust. The Montana Great Falls Tribune even noted that "now that the project has research to prove its effectiveness," it should attract even more donors.

The shoddy reporting didn't go unnoticed by STATS (which is a sort of sideways acronym for Statistical Assessment Service), a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization at George Mason University. The group, which is devoted to exposing "the abuse of science and statistics," had previously criticized the New York Times for hyping the Montana campaign before any statistics showed that it worked. Last week, STATS issued a bulletin citing the newly released statistics.

The campaign, wrote staffer Maia Szalavitz, was a wash. "But the media coverage of the data largely spotlighted the positive spin of the researchers, which hid the negative results in the data section and did not mention them in the executive summary."

The Bird's lauding STATS, in part, because it bothered to give credit where it's due, singling out New Times' report as a "notable exception" to the Montana hype.

But this feathered fiend also can't help but echo the organization's concluding question: "When will we bother to use the data we already have about what works and what doesn't for drug prevention -- and stop throwing money away on ads that generate little more than talk?"

Maybe when politicians actually bother to read the research? Or when the Republic stops making up statistics to support its stupid ideas?

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela