Vandalism is the purposeful defacement or destruction of public or private property without permission. Because it does not usually materially profit the perpetrator or physically harm the victim, it is generally considered to be a crime of anger, alienation, protest, or statement. The term vandalism can refer to everything from carving initials in school desks; breaking windows; scrawling threats on churches, synagogues, and mosques; painting graffiti on buildings and subway cars; to overturning tombstones or ruining school or business property. Accordingly, reactions to vandalism vary widely.
Although often connected to today’s cities and to gang territoriality or even computer hacking and the spreading of viruses, vandalism goes back to early civilizations. For example, what is thought to be graffiti can be found on ancient Greek ruins. Throughout the 20th century, opinions on vandalism have ranged from seeing it as art, a hate crime, or inevitable juvenile mischief. Recently, arrest-driven policing policies have caused more police actions against vandalism.
Vandalism is inevitably linked to the concept of private property and the control and ownership over things and spaces. Therefore, some scholars question the validity of vandalism as a crime and focus on the social construction of vandalism as criminality. For example, food riots in England or France in the early modern period often combined with the destruction of private property and the theft of flour or other food. While this may be considered vandalism, it obviously occupies a more complicated emotional and political terrain than other kinds of crime.
Graffiti, in particular, has been subject to as much valorization as concern by scholars. Indeed, many art historians and social scientists alike consider graffiti to be an important conduit of public art. At the same time, others have recognized the pivotal role of destruction of property and hateful language painted on homes and businesses of those integrating neighborhoods or in other ways transgressing racial hierarchies. Thus, a crime like vandalism is very much in the eye of the beholder and varies widely by the type of marking or destruction, the victim, and the message of the vandal.
Since the 1990s, police officers in many U.S. cities have been pressured, through the dictates of zero-tolerance policing, to arrest suspects of vandalism along with other nuisance offenders. Vandals, who at one point may have been sent home (particularly if juvenile) even if police officers caught them in the act, are now more likely to be arrested and thus conceptualized and labeled as criminals. As well, the popularity of zero-tolerance ideas has made it seem that what once may have been seen as an inevitable product of neighborhood use is now seen as a symptom of a neighborhood in disarray.
Stacy K. McGoldrick
- Phillips, Susan A. 1999. Wallbangin’: Graffiti and Gangs in LA. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Stone, C. 1992. “Vandalism: Property Gentility and the Rhetoric of Crime in New York City, 1890-1920.” Radical History Review 26:115-28.