[Tag]ckling UNM’s graffiti problem

Illustration of a graffiti tagger. (Katie Conley for NM News Port)

By Bryce Dix / New Mexico News Port 

As part of our Curious UNM project, our reporters are seeking questions from the UNM community about the university. These questions can look at any aspect of life on campus, from historical moments to current events. This story by Bryce Dix looks at the question of “How does UNM handle graffiti on campus?”

Large walls, darkness, and opportunity are all it takes for a graffiti tagger to confidently deface property; and the University of New Mexico’s campus offers the perfect recipe for vandals to do just that. 

Joel Henry, a local graffiti artist in Albuquerque, explains what a “tagger” really is. 

“A ‘tagger’ is someone who goes around and spray paints their nickname or alias in places they probably shouldn’t,” Henry said.

As a kid, Henry did his fair share of tagging around the city of Albuquerque. For him, it’s all about the adrenaline rush, and most importantly, putting graffiti where everyone can see it.

Joel Henry working on a mural commissioned by the city of Albuquerque on Central Avenue for Mural Fest. (Bryce Dix / NM News Port)

“When you start meeting people and they recognize what your graffiti nickname is, then you have the need to keep on doing it and keep doing it and keep doing it,” Henry said. “It’s an obsession at that point.”

UNM has a big problem with graffiti vandalism across its campus. According to Steve Howe of the Facilities Management Department, 182 instances of work orders and preventative maintenance actions regarding campus graffiti were filed in the past year. To put that in perspective, facilities management staff spent 1,470 hours removing paint.  

However, graffiti vandalism isn’t seen by most of the staff and students at UNM. Howe said staff constantly patrol campus grounds to catch graffiti as it happens. Students and staff can also help by reporting graffiti to their work control office by phone or online.  

“We want our students to live and go to class in a beautiful environment, which means addressing graffiti with multiple staff on a daily basis to stay ahead of it,” Howe said. 

Facilities management doesn’t charge departments for the cleanups in most cases, but if they did, the labor cost bill for the university would be over $87,000. 

Joel Henry starts a commissioned art piece in his studio. (Bryce Dix / NM News Port)

Joel Henry has not defaced UNM property himself, but he said that the campus is the perfect place for students to go out with a spray paint can to cause mischief. He said the abundance of big, blank walls and lack of lighting makes it easy to not get caught.    

“The people who vandalize don’t care. They pay for it to be cleaned up with their taxes,” Henry said. “Just like a flat tire, it has to be fixed just like everything else.”

Henry is expecting to have a baby soon and has a full time job to worry about. To him, paying fines and spending time in jail by illegally defacing property is just not worth the risk.

Broadly, the graffiti on UNM’s campus is just a small piece of a larger issue for the city of Albuquerque. According to Matthew Whelen, director of the Solid Waste Department, the city cleaned up 37,000 sites of graffiti in the past year.

Brands like Ironlak are pricey spray paints popular with mural artists. To people like Joel Henry, it’s not worth wasting close to $10 for a single can to deface property. (Bryce Dix / NM News Port)

It’s difficult to identify problem areas other than the obvious such as underpasses, certain walls and signs, Whelen said. The graffiti is fairly spread out and it’s difficult to identify specific neighborhoods with more of a problem than others. 

“I think the key to graffiti is more about visibility,” Whelen said. “Not about a certain location. If it’s a visible area, we’ve noticed that people like to put their tags for graffiti there.”

The city of Albuquerque is trying to provide alternative solutions for graffiti writers. Sponsored events like Mural Fest allow artists to paint legal murals to bring color and beauty throughout the city, and business owners along Central Avenue have given permission for artists to paint their walls. 

“We’re not against it [graffiti],” Whelen said. “We just want to make sure it’s done legally.”     

Correction: An early version of this story said the Facilities Management department at UNM did not charge departments for graffiti clean up. In fact, there are some exceptions where billing of departments is necessary. 

Bryce Dix is the senior editor for the New Mexico News Port. He can be contacted on Twitter @brycemdix or at nmnewsport@gmail.com.