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A spring trip to Eastern Europe made me really sensitive to graffiti. It was everywhere. In Berlin especially, the displays were huge, even on rooftops. I've spoken to young folks who admire the social justice messages of graffiti artists like Banksy and emulate his work. Fine with me, as long as they're painting on their own property. Back in the 1980s, the graffiti that adorned the Berlin Wall engendered sympathy. It screamed, "Tear it down!" Painting on the wall of shame seemed to be the right thing to do. Scrawling your name on buildings where people live or work every day, not so much.

Any building administrator can tell you that if graffiti isn't removed immediately, it has a tendency to multiply. Perhaps it seems more justifiable to deface property that's already marked. The city of Napa has long had a graffiti hotline and a patrol that goes out in response to new graffiti. When a Vintage High student group recently chose to paint over a graffiti-laden pedestrian underpass, it was heartwarming news.

Have you had a family conversation about graffiti? You might want to explore your kids' thoughts on the topic. If you have cans of spray paint in your garage or if some suddenly appear, make sure you are informed about the laws, which define graffiti as vandalism. Laws prohibit painting on government buildings, public transit or within 100 feet of freeway structures and sound walls. It's a misdemeanor to furnish minors with materials intended for defacing property, and it's illegal for minors to purchase those materials.

Depending on the cost of repairing the damages and the number of offenses, taggers can be required to pay fines of up to $50,000 and can face jail time as well. The courts have figured out how to impact kids who do tagging -- if they're between the ages of 13 and 21, a graffiti offense can result in a suspended driver's license or a delay in receiving one's first license. Parents may be liable for their children's fines as well as the cost of repairing damaged property.

It would be a daunting task to persuade the youth of the world to stop defacing the cities where they live. City budgets probably aren't big enough to cover the cost of removing many years of graffiti. I'd love to see communities large and small invite young people to collaborate on hands-on public art projects. The Mural, Music and Arts Project in East Palo Alto provides those opportunities to kids in parts of San Mateo County and San Francisco. Let's give kids an avenue for artistic expression along with a sense of civic pride that can be shared by the whole city.

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Lenore Hirsch is a retired school principal living in Napa. Send questions to lenorehirsch@att.net. Please include your child's age or grade.

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