CAMDEN, NJ— Around 11 a.m. on Wednesday, the walls underneath and around the PATCO overpass at the corner of Mt. Vernon Street and Mt. Ephraim Avenue were covered with graffiti. By just a little after noon, the spray paint was nearly all gone.
Soon, that could be the case for the entire City of Camden.
Mayor Frank Moran Wednesday announced the city’s “war on graffiti,” pledging to work to remove graffiti from the walls of its neighborhoods, and in some places, replace it with public murals.
“This is a transformational opportunity for our community,” the mayor said, backed by city officials, community organizations and a graffiti-laden wall. “The arts are often viewed as an economic catalyst for revitalization. Though public art, I believe we have an opportunity to highlight a problem and curb a public nuisance.”
The city has created a direct graffiti hotline so residents can report instances of graffiti directly to the city’s department of public works. All calls will be logged, and public works will track the location of graffiti, send out an inspector to photograph and document the graffiti, and work with the Camden County Police Department to identify the person responsible before it is removed.
“Graffiti, it not only just doesn’t look good, but it tells the story of urban blight,” said Wasim Muhammad, religious leader and Camden City School Board member. “And it also tells a story about of how, we the Citizens of Camden, the people of Camden, how we really feel about ourselves.”
Mayor Moran said that the city will commit additional money in the city’s 2019 budget to support the graffiti removal and the Team Up! Clean Up! Neighborhood clean up campaign.
“There will be a serious effort. We are plagued everywhere in the city, not one community is exempt from graffiti,” Moran said.
Public works will focus first on the business corridors and the ingress and egress corridors of the city, Moran said.
“Subsequently, we’re going to work with the arts commission to designate certain areas to do mural arts, because we find that when murals are done, graffiti artists are less apt to tag them.”
The city is charging the Camden Arts, Cultural and Heritage Commission to look at creative ways for planned art to help Camden curb graffiti.
“Camden is a target-rich environment for beauty,” said William Butler, artist and co-chair of the Camden Arts, Cultural and Heritage Commission. "It has been scratched and etched in so many ways, that this call forward to bring beautification in the city is truly, truly paramount.”
The city will also look to partner with organizations like the Camden Lutheran Housing, Inc., which through its Block Supporter initiative and Decorative Board Up program, has removed almost all of the graffiti from North Camden.
“It’s a great investment,” said Betsy Clifford, executive director of Camden Lutheran. “It really, dramatically improves visually what you’re looking at, and it improves values and an overall feeling of being safe and free from the blight.”
Mayor Moran said that the city would also like to involve the youth and even the artists who tag Camden’s walls with graffiti to participate in creating murals for the city, something Camden Lutheran has looked into doing when it was working murals in North Camden.
Camden Lutheran Housing Associate Director of Community Initiatives Jessica Franzini said they were not successful in identifying and finding any of the graffiti artists to work with.
“What we’ve done is we know there are artists in the neighborhood that we can work into some of the projects that we are doing, but we need to build on that,” Franzini said. But now, with the opportunity to create an urban-style mural that pays and the time in the middle of the day to create art, she thinks more graffiti artists could come forward.
With the murals, Camden hopes to change the story of public art in the city from one of spray paint and blight, to one about the culture of its neighborhoods.
"I want to start telling stories of who we are in the various communities," Moran said. "We are rich in culture in the city, and we’re going to tell good stories, but more importantly the story we’re going to tell is Camden rising."
The graffiti hotline is 856-757-7034.