Citizens paint out graffiti, but tagging continues

Like many businesses on The Ave (University Way Northeast), Gargoyles Statuary has been targeted by graffiti vandals. Most recently, vandals acid-etched the store windows.

When owner Gayle Nowicki cleaned it up, the culprits came back within a couple of weeks and did it again. So far, she's spent close to $1,000 in repairing the damage, not to mention the time spent dealing with it.

For Nowicki and other business owners, the costs are adding up fast.

Last year, Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) spent more than a half-million dollars cleaning up graffiti on public property. All the city departments combined spend $1 million per year to clean up graffiti on public property.

That's in addition to cleanup costs paid by private property owners, said SPU spokesperson Susan Stoltzfus in a written statement.


Staying on top of graffiti is a never-ending battle, and all neighborhoods are susceptible to it. The city says that painting it out is the most effective deterrent to the problem, but others feel that tougher measures are needed.

"It's everywhere - side streets and back streets," said Anthony Matlock, team leader for SPU's Graffiti Rangers program. Matlock's two-person team travels up to 35 miles a day removing graffiti off of public property.

"I have a lot of problems north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in higher-income neighborhoods," he remarked.

Though Broadway and the University District are the most heavily targeted, Wallingford and Greenwood have also been hit hard. Last year, vandals attacked the Burke-Gilman Trail, Meadowbrook Pond and Laurelhurst Park.

Recently, a mural painted by homeless youths at Northeast 45th Street and 15th Avenue Northeast was defaced.

Less than 10 percent of the graffiti that Matlock sees is gang-related, he said.

"They're just normal kids hanging out with nothing to do. Their goal is put up as many tags as possible," Matlock remarked. "It's about visibility. They want to be seen."

Unlike gang graffiti, tagger graffiti is written by a person who adopts a nickname or tag, indicated Seattle Police graffiti detective Rod Hardin in a report. The tag is their personal signature used to promote themselves.

The tagger's goal is fame, the report stated: "The greatest fame goes to those with the most numerous, long-lasting and difficult tags (rooftops, bridges, etc.)." Addictive behavior

As the self-designated graffiti prosecutor, Assistant Seattle City Attorney Edward McKenna handles up to 10 cases a month, many of which are repeat offenders.

"It's really difficult to convince them to stop. It's a very addictive behavior," McKenna remarked. "They live a life of graffiti: They practice their tags and plan well in advance the destruction they're going to cause."

Tagging is indeed a cultural phenomenon and a worldwide trend. There are dozens of websites, such as, where taggers from various regions post photos of their conquests.

According to the police profile, taggers often carry out their work in small groups known as "crews." They are usually male, ranging in age from 10 to the late-20s and are from all social, racial and economic classes.

Many live outside of the areas they tag. Police data indicates that half the taggers arrested in Seattle reside in outlying areas such as Mercer Island, Kirkland, Bellevue and Tacoma. Taggers from major cities in California have also been arrested in Seattle.

Catching the culprits in the act is no easy task since much of their destruction occurs between midnight and 6 a.m.

If apprehended, a suspect's case may be referred to Seattle Police graffiti detective Rod Hardin, who investigates from 75 to 100 graffiti cases a year. In Seattle Municipal Court, graffiti is treated as a property crime, punishable by a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a fine of up to $5,000 for adults.

"Receiving a maximum sentence is rare, but it does happen," McKenna explained in an e-mail. "Normally, defendants with extensive criminal histories, or those who are prolific taggers, receive maximum sentences. [Adult] offenders generally receive some type of probationary sentence, which may include jail, fines, conditions or a combination thereof."

No quick fix

The city has taken measures to curtail the problem through a graffiti nuisance ordinance requiring property owners to paint it out or face fines of up to $100 a day. The measure was adopted in 1994 to encourage the rapid cleanup of graffiti and to prevent its spread throughout the community, according to Seattle Public Utilities' website.

Marvin Albert said that he's being unfairly harassed by the city, saying that they've sent him dozens of notices about his property. He owns a brick building in Wallingford that is a prime target for taggers. A large, two-color tag, highly visible from North 45th Street, currently mars his property.

"They're always on the roof," Albert said, who added he's offended that he has to clean up the damage. He noted that he's been targeted by the vandals for years: They always come back and retag after he paints it out.

"I understand his frustration," responded Vic Roberson, who manages the city's Graffiti Prevention Program, which enforces the ordi-nance."It's not what we like to do, but the community wouldn't have it any other way."

The ordinance is there to remind landlords to maintain their property, Roberson explained.

Janet Stillman, vice president of the Wallingford Community Council, doesn't object to painting it out. However, she and Albert both agree that the city should target taggers through tougher measures instead of burdening business owners.

"It's a significant amount of money," she said of the fines. "That can put someone out of business."

Jim Peringer, president of the SODO Business Association in Southeast Seattle, helped lick graffiti in the once-plagued SODO area. He acknowledged that graffiti is a problem that's never going to go away, but said that business owners need to know that cleanup is part of the bottom-line expense.

Next week: Find out how residents in North Seattle are combating graffiti.

Ericka Berg can be reached via e-mail at

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