In Which We All Learn Something About Graffiti In Seattle

Following a three-month survey on graffiti in Seattle, the city auditor’s office has offered up nine recommendations—and some pretty interesting stats—about dealing with paint and sticker-based vandalism in Seattle.

At the request of councilmembers Tom Rasmussen and Tim Burgess—who’s a big fan of Broken Window Theory—the auditor’s office surveyed 900 Seattle residents, businesses and organizations about their feelings on graffiti, and conducted a one-day survey of graffiti in four busy spots:

Downtown Seattle, between 1st & 6th Avenues and Marion and Spring

First Hill, between 7th Ave and Minor and Marion and Spring

Broadway Ave East, from E. Pine St to E. Roy St.

And E. Pine St, from Nagel Place to 16th Ave, and Minor Ave to Boylston Ave.

According to the not-year-released survey, obtained by (because that’s how we roll), the auditor’s office found “556 instances of graffiti” in a one-day count, only five of which were apparent gang tags. The Auditor’s office also claims they “did not find any instances of what could be called artistic tagging (“street art”),” but I find that hard to believe.

Despite the auditor’s office’s seemingly anti-graffiti stance, their report also busts at least one big myth: That taggers and graffiti artists hit private businesses and property owners the hardest.

In fact, the auditor’s office “found that public property was nearly twice as commonly tagged as private property,” with traffic and street signs, utility poles, and pay stations being most frequently targeted.

Now, obviously, that means some private property owners still have to pay to clean up someone else’s mess—which, for the most part, I agree shouldn’t happen—but it’s interesting to see that taggers, either consciously or subconsciously, seem to be drawn to public (communal?) property.

Now, the highlights from the report:

The city paid $1.8 million dollars on graffiti cleanup last year, and 300 survey respondents spent a total of $232,000 to remove graffiti.

39% of those surveyed indicated that graffiti was not a problem, while 40% indicated that graffiti was a medium to very big problem.

Police in Portland told the auditor’s office “that, in their experience, graffiti on free walls [designated areas where graffiti is allowed, either by private business owners or the city] generally expands to exceed the boundaries of the ‘free wall’ and becomes problematic for the surrounding area.”

However, the Public Safety Leadership Institute also told the auditor’s office “‘free walls’ can provide a type of ‘do no harm’ outlet for individual expression and can augment a graffiti program already focused on eradication, enforcement, and education. 

The PSL also recommends monitoring fee walls to make sure they’re not taken over by gang or “hate graffiti,” and to make sure takes, pieces, throwups, etc don’t expand beyond the designated safe-zone.

The survey also shoots down the idea of a spray paint ban because they are “difficult to enforce and the effectiveness questionable because it is easy to obtain materials elsewhere, such as through the Internet.”

The stat I found most interesting is that the (very-slight majority) of graffiti surveyed in Seattle is done not with spraypaint, but with stickers, which apparently doesn’t technically count as graffiti.


So what was the end result of that graffiti survey?  The auditor’s office made several suggestion for changes to Seattle’s graffiti policies:

1) Updating Seattle’s laws to make stickering a form of graffiti.

2) Clarify how restitution is calculated for graffiti-ers who get busted

3) Have SPD Parking Enforcement Officers record and report graffiti while on shift

4) Create a graffiti database within the police department

5) Dedicate one detective to “apprehend and prosecute graffiti vandals” as part of a two-year pilot project.

6) Develop diversion programs for taggers

7) Redeploy and reassign some responsibilities to employees within the Seattle Department of Transportation and Seattle Public Utilities’ Graffiti Rangers program

8)  Create a coalition of city employees and community groups to perform community outreach and educate the public about graffiti

9. Continue to study graffiti removal statistics in Business Improvement Areas.

We’ve been trying to get in touch with Councilmember Tim Burgess about the survey to find out if he plans to push for any changes in how the city deals with graffiti. We’ll have more info on the city’s plan, and probably some more stats (maybe even another pie chart! Mmmm…pie) in the coming days.

UPDATE: Burgess, who was briefed on the report last week, says he’s “not ready to talk about graffiti just yet” because he has “other more pressing stuff on [his] plate right now”

And now, exit music: