On a recent Friday morning, a member of the five-person Graffiti Rangers team is finishing up a job in Georgetown. It’s another booming year.
The tagging stretches for three blocks on a concrete wall at a freeway onramp at 12th Avenue South and South Harney Street. A prominent word: “BAMBI.”
The crew sprays the wall with Kelly-Moore Premium Professional exterior paint, in a custom color aptly called WSDOT Gray. You want uniformity in your highways, which is why the list of colors includes SDOT Gray.
The well-practiced crew from Seattle Public Utilities is done in 25 minutes.
Stacy Frazier, crew chief, expects the taggers to be back soon at that same spot. “It could be as soon as tonight. Definitely within a week,” he says.
If it seems to you that graffiti now is an everyday part of Seattle’s landscape, you’re right.
It’s been here for years, it’s not going away, and the best that’s been done is a holding action that costs Seattle taxpayers over $3 million a year just for keeping up public spaces.
“Seattle is so covered with graffiti it looks like a clown threw up on the city,” says Andrea Perr, who owns a home in the University District and has had her property tagged.
Seattle is on course to well exceed last year’s 14,000 reports of graffiti — on public and private property — to the city’s Find It, Fix It app.
Month in and month out, the number of reports fluctuates, but the requests are a steady presence. There is no letup.
A typical explanation for graffiti in research papers is that youthful taggers seek fame and recognition. That’s from “The Writing on Our Walls: Finding Solutions Through Distinguishing Graffiti Art from Graffiti Vandalism,” in the 1993 University of Michigan Journal of Law Reform.
Or, maybe as a longtime Seattle tagger — wearing a cap, sunglasses and bandanna over most of his face for anonymity — says on The Fonesex Videos channel on YouTubez: “It’s a great time. It’s a great stress reliever. That’s what I do when I’m sad or … bummed out. You know, I need to paint.” In the video, he bemoans “that a lot of these newer kids are getting their styles from Instagram rather than what they see around their own city.”
Last year, nearly $3 million combined was spent for cleanups by the Graffiti Rangers, Sound Transit, King County Metro and Seattle Parks and Recreation. At $1.8 million, the Graffiti Rangers team cost the most.
The agencies have essentially the same reasoning for the cleanups. Says a Sound Transit spokesperson, “Graffiti prevention and removal provides aesthetically pleasing buses, trains and facilities to our riders.” A term favored by them is “proactive.”
As for graffiti’s costs to private properties, Perr estimates she’s spent “a few hundred” for paint and a power washer when her garage door was tagged, and she’s woken up to see tagging on the retaining wall by her garden. As a bonus, while sweeping some leaves by the wall, she found a baggie containing what looked like drugs.
A July 2010 report by the Seattle City Auditor noted that property owners who answered an online survey estimated annual average cleanup costs at $200 per person.
Nationally, a ballpark figure for annual repair of graffiti damage is $15 billion to $18 billion. That’s from a 2010 paper “Establishing Graffiti Emissions …” presented at an Environmental Protection Agency conference.
Among the private companies in the graffiti cleanup business is Goodbye Graffiti out of Tukwila. It has a $1.1 million, five-year contract with Sound Transit to clean buses, trains and facilities.
Owner Laurie Spivack says she also works with private businesses, and her crews clean or paint over graffiti at 350 locations for $150 to $1,000 a month.
The logic for property managers is simple.
“Our maintenance program is designed to help a property owner solve their problem and make it somebody else’s problem,” says Spivack. “Being on top of it week after week, the kids see that their graffiti is not staying, so they stop at that location and go somewhere else.”
To be clear, nearly all of the graffiti that’s commonly seen around the area is not the mural graffiti that gets written about in stories about urban art.
It’s not the Black Lives Matter in colorful block letters done in the middle of East Pine Street at the former Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone, which is being preserved by the city and is a tourist attraction.
It’s not how the walls outside the King County Archives and the county Records Building on East Fir Street were used to host an Off the Wall mural battle. When the records site was sold and demolished, so went three of the five walls used in the event.
This is about the vandalism side of it, which accounts for nearly all graffiti complaints.
In that 2010 city auditor’s report, on May 18, of that year, a total of 556 instances of graffiti was counted in parts of downtown, First Hill and Capitol Hill.
The results: 551 “common tags,” 5 “apparently gang tags” and 0 “artistic tagging.”
Says Jules James, who lives in the Eastlake neighborhood, “Tagging isn’t time-honored territory marking — like hearts carved in a tree or painting the school rock on the outskirts of town. Graffiti is night writing: ‘I was here violating someone else’s property and nobody nearby could stop me.’”
James is a semiretired property manager who walks around Eastlake painting over graffiti and scraping off slapped-on stickers.
“It doesn’t matter if the graffiti is meant to be ritualistic chatter within a streetwise culture,” James says in an email. “Graffiti is trash left for someone else to tear down, clean up or paint over.”
Maque daVis is a Fremont arts activist who on a weekly basis cleans the Fremont Troll, as well as a panoramic mural at the Aurora Bridge exit of North 38th Street.
“I am infuriated over this disrespect of other persons’ art work … I spend valuable time of my life, cleaning up after infantile miscreants, to the point that I wonder what I will do when I find a tagger,” he says.
Paul de Barros, the retired Seattle Times music critic, wrote “Jackson Street After Hours” about the Seattle jazz club scene in the 1940s.
In October 2005, de Barros spoke at the unveiling at a bus stop at 12th and Jackson of a 5-foot sign commemorating that era, with narrative and images of such music greats as Ray Charles, Quincy Jones and Ernestine Anderson.
The sign didn’t stay pristine after the taggers’ onslaught.
In conducting tours of the neighborhood, de Barros uses this word to describe what happened to the sign: “Molested.”
A spokesperson for the city’s Office of Economic Development says it hopes to have a plan for removing the current sign and have “possibilities for a different solution than simply replacing the sign.”
The typical Seattle graffiti offender is 24-year-old white male, according to that 2010 auditor’s study, based on 18 of the previous year’s closed graffiti vandalism cases.
The city attorney’s office says that in the first half of 2020, it only filed 14 charges for property damage involving graffiti. Spokesperson Dan Nolte says the declining number of prosecutions is due to “lacking the evidence to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a Seattle jury.”
From 2011 until last year, the Seattle Police Department had a full-time detective assigned to graffiti investigations. That position was cut.
According to a sampling of narratives in police arrest reports for graffiti vandalism, the suspects never mention an artistic aspect of their tagging.
Case No. 653029, Feb. 19, 2020, 10 p.m.: Police in an unmarked vehicle say they observed a 38-year-old man climbing a stoplight pole at Third and Pike. “The subject then pulled out a black sharpie and began tagging the street sign and wrote ‘$ BLOOD.’”
Police say the man then “advised officers that he couldn’t be arrested for a misdemeanor in Seattle.” They arrested him. At the precinct, police say the man told them he “swallowed a gram of heroin.” The suspect was taken to Harborview Medical Center. The case is in pretrial.
Case No. 654581, Dec. 19. 2019: At 4 in the morning, an officer stopped a man, 24, spraying a wall near Martin Luther King Jr. Way South and South Norfolk Street. Evidence collected included a “cellphone covered in white paint (that) was resting on the ledge where the suspect was located.”
The cellphone was set to record. The officer reviewed 24 minutes of video, on which “the suspect can be seen quite clearly painting the wall.”
The suspect, said the report, denied owning the cellphone, denied doing the painting, “denied ever being present” and said “he was just walking home.” An arrest warrant was issued for failure to appear in court.
Desmond Hansen, 39, used to be one of those 24-year-old graffiti-making males. He started doing graffiti as a teen.
Now, he says, “I do nothing but legit art. I can’t risk any of that. That’s for the kids.”
Hansen these days has a business out of West Seattle painting murals, his website saying he’d “find a way to work within your budget.”
He’s also painted 60 sites as part of the city’s Department of Transportation signal box program, that you can spot at arterials, adorning them with portraits of celebrities such as Gary Payton, Russell Wilson and Macklemore.
“I spent a lot of my life the illegal way,” Hansen says about his graffiti.
But, he says, “That’s how people gain skills. When I was a kid, it helped me figure out how to work with paint,” and now he has a mural business.
Hansen adds, “Some people never grow out of that stage,” meaning tagging. “Putting their name on stuff is essential to them. That’s pretty much all they have. “
He says about all those efforts to paint over graffiti, “It’s a waste of money. In the ’90s there was a hard push to cover graffiti with paint. That ushered graffiti artists to write on windows using Etch Bath, a liquid that burns into windows. You can’t ever shut down a culture that exists organically. Vandalism is always going to exist unless you have a complete non-free world.”
Hansen uses this logic to explain how a person can rationalize marking up public property:
“When I was younger, doing that stuff, I thought that people don’t have ownership of public property. We all pay for it,” he says.
Even Hansen’s signal box portraits hasn’t escaped tagging, such one at 12th Street and Union Avenue of racing great Enzo Ferrari.
He says the tagging of his boxes “seem to be of mentally upset people. I get the occasional people’s eyes scratched out.”
Hansen says, “I just go and fix it. Sometimes it comes out better. It comes along with the territory. It is what it is. You’re dealing with society.”
Well, it’s a rationale, of sorts.