Some call it the latest art trend, but others lambaste it as an ugly symbol of present-day Japanese society.

People visiting Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward are invariably surprised at the ubiquitous presence of graffiti, which fills every conceivable space ranging from the sides of public baths to traffic signs to roadside walls.

Shoichi Imai points out graffiti on his newly built shed in Shibuya Ward.

For street painters operating in this mecca for the hip young, it matters not whether their canvas is a kindergarten or personal property.

Despite efforts by local authorities to curb the spread of this type of vandalism, the trend is growing, partly fueled by some media, which treat graffiti as another form of art culture imported from New York.

Yet, the argument that graffiti is art seems outrageous to local resident Shoichi Imai, who woke up one day in March to find his newly built house defaced by graffiti.

“Some people accept it as an art form, but they can do that because they have not been victimized,” the 73-year-old pensioner said.

It began with a small scribble, but graffiti was added almost daily and now fills up the entire wall of his home and the back surface of his shed. He said he was aware of the graffiti epidemic in his neighborhood but thought the culprits would not dare target a brand-new house.

“During the first month, there was no graffiti, and I thought the kids refrained out of respect (for the new house),” Imai said. “But it turned out it was just off-season for them, because they started vandalizing in the spring.”

While he said he was well aware that he was not the only target, it was impossible not to take the matter personally. “This house was my life-long dream, for which I spent my entire savings. I’m beyond anger,” he said.

Once sprayed, the paint is almost impossible to remove without leaving ugly smudge marks, and painting over it requires revarnishing the entire surface, which Imai said he cannot afford.

“And I wouldn’t erase (the graffiti) even if I could afford to,” he said. “A store in my neighborhood spent 60,000 yen to remove graffiti from its shutters. But only a few days later, they did it again. I just don’t want to give them fresh prey.”

According to the ward office, residents’ complaints about graffiti have increased rapidly in the last few years. One official said Shibuya is targeted because it is the best place for street painters to attract the attention of their generation.

Some media are also to blame. Earlier this year, a popular magazine ran an article that introduced “graffiti art” as a part of hip-hop culture through which everyone can express themselves. There is also a magazine devoted to graffiti.

Such a tolerant environment has emboldened some vandals in their artistic endeavors. In one case, the ward official said, authorities erased some graffiti but more appeared soon after, with its painter leaving a message of thanks for “a beautiful canvas.”

In April 1998, the ward enacted an ordinance making graffiti an offense punishable with a 20,000 yen fine. But despite the prevalence of vandals, very few have actually been caught.

According to the Harajuku Police Station, only seven people have been arrested for graffiti in two cases since April despite efforts by law enforcement authorities.

Officials said vandals are difficult to apprehend red-handed, since they work quickly and hightail it away, taking advantage of the dark. In one case, a group of five people covered more than 40 spots with graffiti in one night before they were caught, an official said.

These graffiti artists come to Shibuya on the last train and leave on the first train the next morning. Police said most are from the greater metropolitan area, including Kanagawa Prefecture, and are in their teens and early 20s.

But despite the epidemic, the actual circle of vandals is rather small, according to Nobuhiko Takeda, a member of the Guardian Angels, a nonprofit organization that patrols entertainment districts.

“All have their own style, and you can guess the number of people involved from the kinds of scribbles,” Takeda said. “I think there are about 20 to 30 groups operating in the area and they compete with each other.”

He said the Shibuya graffiti bears similarities to that in New York, but the two are completely different in nature. “In New York, graffiti had a solid social background and was meant to send sarcastic messages (to society),” he said. “But people here merely copied the style and therefore lack the message. So, it’s just vandalism.”

His group has so far caught two vandals during nightly patrols, but Takeda said catching perpetrators is very difficult as one must be extra certain about the culprit before making a move.

It can also involve danger, because some of the vandals are armed. Police found pepper spray and a knife in the backpack of one of the suspects caught by the Guardian Angels.

Takeda said a tough attitude is necessary to stop the epidemic. “They know they are doing something wrong, but they keep doing it because no one cares or dares to stop them,” he said.

“But these people are very alert and avoid places where others have been caught. I think the number will decrease if Shibuya can establish a reputation as being tough on vandalism.”

However, he was not optimistic about a breakthrough anytime soon, predicting the trend will last at least a couple of years.

In the meantime, some businesses have started marketing antigraffiti products. Last year, Bunka Shutter Co. released a coating material that creates a smooth silica film over the surface it is coated on, which makes it easier to remove paint sprayed on it. The material was originally developed as a protective film for toilet bowls, but the graffiti epidemic has brought a windfall to the firm.

The cost of the coating, including foundation painting, starts at 8,000 yen per square meter. With the coating, paint can be removed with regular solvents, according to company officials, who added that Shibuya Ward has also expressed interest in their product.

However, the distress of Shibuya resident Imai cannot be simply alleviated through technological innovation.

“The graffiti brings home how far society has deteriorated,” he said. “People say Shibuya is the town of the young, but there still should be a better sense of moral order.”

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