Wiping out graffiti: South End citizens focus on persistent street vandals

When business owner Gigi Bungay opened Salon Soleil on Beacon Avenue South a few years ago, she moved into a damaged storefront. Vandals had acid-etched all the windows. She spent a couple hundred replacing them, and also paid to have a protective coating applied to prevent future damage.

"It's disrespectful and a nuisance," said Bungay of the vandalism that has damaged numerous store fronts in the Beacon Hill business district.

Throughout Seattle, citizens are waging a quiet war against graffiti. For many, the costs are adding up fast.

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

That's in addition to clean-up 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. It comes and goes in cycles, striking neighborhoods around the city.

"I have a lot of problems north of the Lake Washington Ship Canal,"said Anthony Matlock who is the 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.

Less than 10 percent of the graffiti that Matlock sees is gang related.

"They're just normal kids hanging out with nothing to do. Their goal is to 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, according to a report by Seattle Police graffiti detective Rod Hardin. The tag is their personal signature used to promote themselves. The tagger's self-described goal is fame: The greatest fame goes to those with the most numerous, long lasting and difficult tags [rooftops, bridges, etc.], stated the report.

'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," McKenna remarked. "It's a very addictive behavior. 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 Web sites, such as Meetup.com, 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.' Their ages range from 10 to the late 20s and are from all social, ethnic and economic classes.

Catching the culprits in the act is no easy task since much of their destruction occurs between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. They will often hit one neighborhood and then move on several miles to another area. 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 also have been arrested in Seattle.

If apprehended, a suspect's case may be referred to graffiti detective Rod Hardin who investigates from 75 to 100 graffiti cases a year. In the 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," explained McKenna in an email.

"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, fine, 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 removal of graffiti and to prevent its spread throughout the community, according to SPU's Web site.

"Most comply and clean it up right away," said SPU program manager Vic Roberson, whose department enforces the ordinance.

Beacon Hill community activist Amie Patao protested that the ordinance can take months to implement. Sometimes it takes several complaints to the city's graffiti hotline before someone comes out to investigate, Patao remarked. Often, the expense is passed on to business owners who end up paying for graffiti removal rather than letting it linger on their storefronts.

Though there are no easy solutions, Patao and her neighbors are turning the tables around by teaming up with the city and property owners to take control of the problem.

"It's part of the cost of doing business, and part of the responsibility of being a good neighbor," said Patao.

Next week in Part II: Discover how citizens combat graffiti in Beacon Hill[[In-content Ad]]