Graffiti: The never-ending problem story

The markings are everywhere, scrawled on almost every kind surface (glass included) in Queen Anne and Magnolia. Taggers regard their stylized monikers as art, but graffiti (a plural noun) make people like Carol Costantino just plain angry.

Costantino lives on Queen Anne Hill near Coe Elementary School, and she's worried because graffiti started appearing on garage doors in her neighborhood last year.

Just lately, she says, the stuff has begun to show up on trashcans, stop signs, metal sign poles and wooden telephone poles, making the area feel "run down, threatening and ugly."

Costantino even gets a bit graphic herself when she talks about the problem, saying: "Graffiti chips (sic) away at a neighborhood like blisters under paint."

The city agrees graffiti tags are a problem. It's a quality-of-life issue, according to Vic Roberson, manager of cleanup programs for Seattle Public Utilities (SPU), the lead agency in charge of graffiti-removal efforts.

The presence of graffiti not only leads to more graffiti, it leads to anti-social behavior such as littering, loitering, doing drugs and drinking in public, he said. "It contributes to an environment where these things are more desirable."

Social aspects aside, it costs the city close to a million dollars a year to clean up tags on its own property, Roberson added.

Many of the tags are removed following a call to the city's Graffiti Report Line at 684-7587. The hotline received 3,820 calls about tags on public property last year, along with 2,000 calls about graffiti on private property, according to SPU records.

SPU maintains a crew of Graffiti Rangers who remove tags from its own property, and SPU will contact graffiti-removal crews at other departments such as Seattle Transportation and Parks and Recreation if the graffiti are on their property, Roberson said.

Owners of private property are responsible for their own cleanup costs, he said, although the city does supply groups of neighborhood graffiti-removal volunteers with painting supplies, free paint and a little red wagon to cart everything around in.

The paint volunteers use to cover graffiti on private property generally comes in brown, beige and white, according to Anthony Matlock.

Matlock - who can be reached at 386-9746 - is an SPU staffer who works with community groups on graffiti removal. However, he cautioned, the volunteers have to get permission from the owners before any work is done on private property.

Matlock conceded that can be a problem sometimes because about 20 percent of property owners with graffiti problems don't live in Seattle.

"Legally, you have to track these people down," he said of a process that includes sending a registered letter to them if the city has ordered a cleanup.

Bringing the hammer down

The city passed a graffiti-nuisance ordinance in the mid-1990s that requires owners to remove graffiti from private property within 10 days of receiving a notice.

If they don't, the owners could end up facing fines of $100 a day, with a maximum fine of $5,000. The same 10-day deadline applies to city agencies, Roberson said.

"As a professional without the ability to hold people accountable for their actions, you need that program," he said. "At some point, you need to provide a hammer."

Sometimes, all it takes is a call. That's what happened when two vacant homes on 15th Avenue West near West Dravus Street were plastered with graffiti (see photos).

The owner of the two homes lives out of state, but Excel Properties is marketing the property, and an SPU staffer called one of the company's real-estate agents.

"I didn't even know it existed," said Tim Berg from Excel. "It's not a pleasant thing," he said of the graffiti, which among other areas covered the wall on the front porch from floor to ceiling on both houses.

"The (SPU) lady that called me was very easy to deal with," Berg said, adding he was told the graffiti needed to be painted out "ASAP." It was - to varying degrees.

Other property owners don't find dealing with SPU about graffiti as easy. According to a Jan. 24 police report, the owner of an apartment house in the 1500 block of Aurora Avenue North called police to report that his building had been repeatedly tagged, most recently just a few days before the report was filed.

The reporting officer noted that efforts had been made to paint over the graffiti, but the property owner complained that he'd gotten a notice in November from SPU threatening fines if the tags weren't cleaned up.

The owner also charged that the city "seemed more concerned with fining property owners than punishing graffiti painters," according to the police report.

Actually, fines are levied only after the case is heard by a City Hearing Examiner, according to the graffiti ordinance. The ordinance also specifies that the case will be dropped and no fines imposed if the tags are cleaned up at least 48 hours before the hearing.

The tagger mindset

Most graffiti taggers are between 12 and 25 years old, suffer from low self-esteem, are almost invariably male and come from middle- and upper-income family backgrounds, according to SPU.

Indeed, according to another recent police report, two of three taggers caught in the act in the 300 block of Westlake Avenue North came from Queen Anne. One is a boy who is around 16; the other is man who's around 19 and told police he's been caught tagging before, adding that he has graffiti cases already pending in court.

Roberson isn't surprised. "They're looking for visibility," he said of repeat offenders. "They will play a game with you, like a cat-and-mouse game," he added.

Matlock knows that firsthand. He said he and a specific tagger went back and forth concerning graffiti on an I-5 overpass. Matlock would paint the tag out, the tagger would replace it, Matlock would paint it out, etc., until the tagger finally gave up.

However, the last time he painted out the tagger's graffiti, the tagger left him a message next to the graffiti complaining, Matlock said, that he did not appreciate the tagger's "art."

He scoffs at the idea of graffiti being art. "These are graffiti terrorists," Matlock said. "They're costing the city and business people millions of dollars."

Most of the graffiti in Seattle are tags for individuals or small graffiti crews that have their own identifier tags, Roberson said. Less than 10 percent of the graffiti in Seattle are gang-related, he said.

Hate graffiti are rare, but they do appear a few times each month and are given a high priority, according to Roberson. "We have a 24-hour response (time) to hate graffiti on public property."

Obscene graffiti are even more rare. "We don't see a lot of that," he said. "I don't know why."

The key to deterring graffiti is a quick response, both Roberson and Matlock said. "We need to send them (taggers) a message," is how Matlock puts it.

News reporter Russ Zabel can be reached at or 461-1309.[[In-content Ad]]