From cons to artists

It’s a form of artistic expression that has plagued major metropolitan areas for decades. The swirls, the colors, the images, even down to the finite locations – every aspect of graffiti is unique to the

It’s a form of artistic expression that has plagued major metropolitan areas for decades. The swirls, the colors, the images, even down to the finite locations – every aspect of graffiti is unique to the artist, but ruinous to the people who glare upon it everyday.

For the past 10 years, it has been Thomas Conway’s job to eliminate graffiti in Philadelphia.

Conway, the deputy managing director of the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network, takes calls on a daily basis from citizens asking for removal of graffiti from their property. The work of his department, one that also provides vouchers for free paint, spurred the development of similar programs in Chicago, New York City, and Milwaukee, Wis.

Before beginning his work with the Philadelphia’s AGN, Conway said the city had a horrible reputation for being spattered with graffiti.

“At one point, every building on Broad Street had graffiti,” Conway said. “You couldn’t escape it.”

In 1996, the city instituted a zero-tolerance graffiti campaign, calling for the quick removal of graffiti anywhere in sight. That meant painting over images and name tags painted onto public and private buildings, Conway said.

Conway’s staff suddenly had grown from four people to 30 full-time staffers. The program’s budget dramatically increased as well, rising from a standard $500,000 to its current $1.2 million.

Conway’s work encouraged former President Bill Clinton to make a visit during his 1997 Presidential Summit on America’s Future. Clinton picked up a paint roller and went to work on some graffiti-covered walls on Germantown Avenue. Conway called that “the proudest moment in [the program’s] history. That was special.”

Because of the AGN’s efforts, Conway said, Philadelphia is cleaner now than it has ever been. He even compared Philadelphia’s successes to another Pennsylvania city’s plight.

“We hear Pittsburgh is having a tough time right now,” Conway said. “If we were to stop removal of graffiti at any point of time, for a day or two, the city would be inundated with graffiti. We’d be back to square one.

“Philadelphia is at the point right now where we are light years ahead of where we once were.”

An integral part of Conway’s department has been the Juvenile Aid Division of Philadelphia, which helps in the identification of graffiti tags and the artists who draw them. The partnership has created job opportunities for former vandals. Since 1996, 36 former wall-writers have been added to the city’s payroll as full-time artists, Conway said.

If a vandal is caught in the act or later identified by the Juvenile Aid Division, Conway said, the individual becomes a potential muralist. To do so, the AGN created the Mural Arts Program, which gives young artists an outlet for self-expression through instructional sessions. The program has helped to complete more murals than any other art program in the country.

“The vandals were painting to show their friends or to show off,” Conway said. “The quick removal effort takes away that satisfaction. If we remove graffiti within a day or two, it removes any satisfaction and stops the efforts.

“Vandals often say they’re doing it to express themselves, but we say, ‘If you want to do it legally, do it on your bedroom wall. Don’t do it on someone’s property.'”

The finished product of AGN and Conway’s work is visible all around the city, where graffiti-littered walls have been transformed into urban works of art.

One such mural, painted by the AGN, is located at the housing development at Norris and Marvine streets in North Philadelphia.

The mural is painted on the side of one apartment building, which is part of the Norris Apartment Complex. The mural is a depiction of the neighborhood, with a bright sun shining at the end of a one-way street.

Philadelphia native Tony Jackson, who has lived in the neighborhood for five years, said he doesn’t know the origin of the mural or anyone who had a hand in producing it. Jackson said the mural means a lot to him, though.

“I never paid much mind to it,” said Jackson, 24. “It’s a picture of our neighborhood because that’s what we like to see when we walk by. It represents what we’re all about.”

Jackson’s friend, Steve Smith, also lives in the neighborhood. While the 18-year-old said the mural “represents hope,” Smith added that the vandals who scribble their names into the paint cut away at the mural’s message.

“You can’t say that [it stands for hope] though because people come around and destroy it,” Smith said. “They’ll come by, write their names, and draw on it. It ruins it.”

And when that happens, Conway said his department would remove the vandal’s art. “If that’s happening in their neighborhood, we’ll know about it soon enough,” he said. “It will be fixed.”

Christopher A. Vito can be reached at

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