Graffiti vandals cost public millions
You see graffiti everywhere: parks, bus stops, maybe your own property. But getting rid of it is a never-ending, expensive process.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Graffiti: Gauging the impact of a costly public nuisance
This story is part of a special collaborative project between The Seattle Times and its local news partners:
Neighborhood views: From Redmond to West Seattle, our online community partners take a closer look at graffiti in their neighborhoods.
Graffiti resourcesIn Seattle
Report on public property: Call 206-684-7587, or go online and fill out a complaint form: web1.seattle.gov/spu/CRMIQ/ContactSPU.aspx
Did your property get tagged? Call Seattle Police to file a report at 206-625-5011.
Hold a paint party: Seattle Public Utilities runs a "paint-out" program, providing free materials and training to volunteers who want to clean up graffiti in their neighborhood. Go to www.paintout.org or call Daniel Sims at 206-684-7790.
In unincorporated King County: Call 206-296-8100 to report graffiti on public property.
In unincorporated Snohomish County: Call 425-388-3311 to report graffiti or use the online form at: www.snoco.org/app/pds/graffiti. If you see graffiti in progress, call 911.
Other areas: Call your city hall to get information about graffiti ordinances and removal.
There is a certain rhythm to Michael Parks' job. He paints, they tag, he paints, they tag. ...
It's a silent tango between those who scrawl graffiti and those who are paid to remove it. The dance pauses briefly when one side gives up. Maybe a tagger gets bored — or caught. Maybe a painter moves on to something else.
For now, that won't be Parks. He shows up as a "graffiti ranger" for Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) every day, just as he has for the past six years, in a white uniform and orange vest. He and a partner roam Seattle neighborhoods in a city-owned truck, their solvent cans, brushes and paint drums clanging in the back.
They stop at stairwells, bridges, trash cans, postal boxes, retaining walls. Graffiti disappears. And it all comes back the next week.
"It does get frustrating. But sometimes, you see improvement," Parks said on a recent morning, standing beneath the 15th Avenue Northeast Bridge, attacking a wall of scribbles with fresh gray paint.
"This place used to be a lot worse."
Since the invention of spray paint, and possibly even before that, cities have been battling graffiti.
In Seattle, rangers are only one faction. The parks department, Seattle's Department of Transportation, King County Metro Transit and Sound Transit all pay workers to erase the mess. For years, Seattle police even had a "graffiti detective," but he retired in 2007 and the position never was filled.
The effort is expensive. Seattle Public Utilities spent about $1 million last year for graffiti enforcement, removal, education and outreach, while King County Metro Transit spent $734,000 last year to rid buses, tunnels, park and rides and bus shelters of graffiti.
Add it all up and, overall, city and county agencies are spending millions in tax dollars a year trying to combat the ubiquitous squiggles, tags, gang symbols and drawings that marr public property.
Its persistence creates headaches for private-property owners required to get rid of it, and anxiety from residents worried about neighborhood blight.
Communities in recent months have amped up efforts to curb it. Along the Aurora corridor, for instance, neighbors are organizing a "Graffiti Paint Out Day."
And West Seattle residents' complaints prompted councilmembers Tom Rasmussen and Tim Burgess to ask for a citywide audit on graffiti and litter. The audit will look at arrest and prosecution rates and whether current laws are sufficient, among other things. That report is expected June 1.
No centralized front
It's hard for officials to talk with any certainty about graffiti trends. Because so many city agencies deal with it, no one keeps a centralized database of complaints.
And there are a lot.
Seattle Public Utilities has averaged about 7,300 a year since 2008, said Linda Jones, manager of the graffiti-rangers team. Some are divvied up among the six rangers. The rest are handed off to other city agencies, she said.
The rangers erased or painted out 445,000 square feet of graffiti in 2009. That's almost eight football fields.
Hate messages take first priority; those have to be gone in 24 hours. Everything else is tackled within six to 10 days, Jones said.
Short of catching someone in the act, officials say, the best way to prevent graffiti is to remove it — fast. A quick response shows intolerance, they say.
Let it linger, and taggers revel in the "glory," said Ed McKenna, assistant city attorney.
Certainly, graffiti seems to tattoo all urban landscapes. Look around Seattle and you'll find it everywhere: billboards, construction sites, businesses and homes.
Overhead highway signs and train cars hold particular appeal, evidence of the adrenaline rush — and grudging respect of other taggers — that go along with the crime, officials say.
In some cities, such as Los Angeles, these signs are wrapped with barbed wire to prevent vandalism. But that's not the case in Washington, said Jamie Holter, spokeswoman for the Washington state Department of Transportation.
To clean a freeway sign, workers have to shut down a lane at night, get in a truck and raise a boom.
"We don't want to take as many risks as [the taggers] do," Holter said. "But we do make an effort to quickly get rid of the stuff that's really awful, like the n-word or swastikas."
McKenna, the attorney, said he's seen people addicted to tagging like a drug.
Last year, a 28-year-old Miami man made national news after he fell to his death while tagging a sign on the Palmetto Expressway. In 1997, one prolific Seattle tagger severed a foot while tagging a train in Golden Gardens. But that didn't stop him. Records show he pleaded guilty for tagging again in 1999 and 2000.
"People love to see their name in lights," McKenna said. "It's easy notoriety without having to have any skills. We've seen people who all they do is dream of graffiti."
Jesse Edwards is one of those guys.
Edwards, 32, started tagging public property in middle school. The first time, he said, happened behind a convenience store in Everett in broad daylight. He said he'll never forget the rush.
"It gives you a sense of instant gratification," said Edwards, adding that it later inspired him to become a graffiti artist. "It's making a statement about your own existence."
Hard to catch
Who are taggers?
Generally, they're male, between 10 and late 20s, and come from all racial and socio-economic backgrounds, police say. They may feel invisible and seek acceptance in a crew. While many outgrow it and move on, some can't let go.
This month, a 35-year-old father in Shoreline was charged with six counts of felony malicious mischief after a years-long graffiti and tagging spree, according to the King County Sheriff's Department.
Detectives say Tony Lee targeted the same victims again and again, which started to breed fear and frustration in the community. Police boosted efforts to go after taggers, and have identified 16 more suspects in recent weeks, Sgt. John Urquhart said.
But police will be the first to say it: Taggers are exceedingly tough to catch.
Arrest numbers fluctuate wildly year to year. For instance, Seattle police made 234 graffiti-related arrests in 2008. That number fell to 41 last year.
"Usually [taggers] are on foot, so they can just drop the stuff and run," police spokesman Mark Jamieson said.
And property owners are left to clean it up.
Under the city's Graffiti Nuisance Ordinance, if private businesses or homes get tagged and owners don't act promptly, SPU sends a letter asking them to remove it within 10 days. Ignore the notice, and property owners could face fines of $100 per day with a maximum of $5,000.
SPU sent 1,392 first-time warnings to property owners last year. About 75 percent complied, Jones said. After a second warning, nearly all got rid of the graffiti, she said.
Joe Grossruck was one of the few who protested.
He owns a building on Roosevelt Way Northeast, which he used to lease to Enterprise Rent-A-Car. But the business closed two years ago and the site has sat vacant since then because the "economy stinks," he said. In the meantime, it's been hit again and again.
Grossruck said he got sick of dealing with it and let the graffiti sit. He racked up $3,900 in city fines, but it didn't faze him.
"I didn't pay them a nickel," Grossruck said.
The city even agreed to reduce the penalty to $500, if he got rid of the graffiti. He did — but still refused to cough up the cash.
"Why should I be the one who pays?" he said. "Anybody who gets hits by these guys is a victim. In two years, [the graffiti] has never quit. I used to paint it up nice, and then they hit again. The poor old property owners don't get a break."
A spokeswoman for the City Attorney's office said seeking damages "isn't a high priority," and that the main goal is to get rid of graffiti.
In Grossruck's case, he signed a waiver allowing volunteers to clean up the property whenever it's tagged in the future.
Grossruck said he suspects the graffiti is the work of "some little punks." He said he doesn't understand the endless scribbles anyway.
"It's not art, I can tell you that," he said.
Same old patterns
Michael Parks, the graffiti ranger, said he believes he has a few of these taggers figured out. They are, after all, human. And humans thrive on patterns.
As Parks walked down University Avenue, he pointed to one fire hydrant spray-painted with a tag he's seen for years: "1+1= 3."
"What does it mean? I don't know. Probably that they can't add," he said.
His partner quickly buffed it out. But if history were any indication, Parks said, the next hydrant would be marked with the same tag. And so would the next.
"They usually do three or four in a row on one side," he said, heading a block down to 42nd Street. He was right.
He's learned a few important lessons as a ranger. No. 1: Don't lose patience. No. 2: Measure success in increments.
"There are areas where we've gone every week, and the taggers quit going there because they know it will be taken off," he said. "Stuff like that keeps you going."
Parks said he thought about how much he'd like to give the taggers some advice, tell them to find something better to do.
Then, he said, he'd "snatch these kids and make them clean it all up."
Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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