Graffiti plastered the walls of Philadelphia in the early 1980s, tarnishing the image of the city and serving as a constant visual reminder of the City's gang legacy. Businesses and schools had essentially given up on attempts to keep their property graffiti-free since clean-up attempts only resulted in a blank wall that would be almost immediately re-coated with a fresh layer of spray-paintings. Most of the vandals were youths experiencing personal problems and living in dangerous environments. Nonetheless, their property defacement was preventing economic development and destroying the morale of Philadelphia residents, causing mayoral candidate Wilson Goode to declare "war" against graffiti in his 1983 campaign. Mayor Goode followed through on his pledge by establishing Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network (PAGN), a nonprofit organization, in 1984.
PAGN launched an innovative comprehensive approach to curbing graffiti throughout Philadelphia. The efforts of the Network range from crime and grime fighting, to public art producing and community beautification, to youth serving and neighborhood organizing. Although other cities have implemented certain elements of PAGN individually, no other jurisdiction has ever employed such an all-encompassing approach.
The first step of PAGN was to create tougher anti-graffiti regulations and to increase the intensity of law enforcement. An ordinance made it illegal to sell spray-paints to minors and prohibited unlocked displays of paints in stores. The Juvenile Aid Division of the Philadelphia Police Department established an initiative to target and to investigate "tags" of major graffitists, resulting in the arrest and conviction of many repeat offenders. Although local courts began treating graffiti-writing as a serious form of vandalism, a number of alternative punishments for offenders were also established, including "scrub time." An amnesty program allowed arrested youth to be exempt from prosecution for previous offenses by signing a pledge stating that they would not vandal again. Over 1,000 youths signed the pledge between 1984 and 1991.
Convicted graffitists as well as the city's youth are able to take advantage of PAGN's apprenticeships, which engage graffitists with creative talent to gain exposure and guidance from professional artists. PAGN's community service funding allows youths to attend art classes, participate in community mural paintings, visit museums and attend art auctions, where the opportunity exists for them to sell their own works. As of 1991, 36 former wall writers had earned the status of full-time paid PAGN mural artists.
The creation of murals throughout Philadelphia represents the most essential element of the PAGN effort. The residents have not only experienced a dramatic decline in the production of graffiti, but have also witnessed the spectacular beautification of their neighborhoods. PAGN focuses resources on both cleaning defaced walls and preventing the property from experiencing future vandalism. By 1991, over 40,000 walls in Philadelphia had been scrubbed due to PAGN's organization of community clean-up activities. However, unlike previous efforts, walls are not left as blank slates, but are instead filled with beautiful and moving murals, discouraging future vandalism. PAGN has created more than 1,000 murals on previously graffiti-laden walls, but only three or four of these have been subject to new scrawlings. The mural creations go onto to inspire community organizations to develop lot beautification projects, such as garden planting, which further enriches the City's neighborhoods. PAGN has received extensive praise from city residents, local businesses, the police, schools, cultural institutions, and the media because of its approach to balancing law enforcement, beautification efforts, and social services to successfully tackle one of Philadelphia's most visible problems.