While we dither, Washington State steps up against graffiti vandalism

Last November, I wrote a column in The Reporter entitled “State officials must deal with scourge of graffiti vandals” that sought to light a fire under our government leaders to deal with the surge in graffiti vandalism, especially along highways and mass transit lines in greater Boston.

Since the column, the graffiti has become ubiquitous. Even signs over highways are being tagged. This problem seems to bother everyone except the state agencies that own the parcels that hold the graffiti. The Massachusetts Highway Department has largely ignored efforts by the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association to discuss the extensive graffiti and trash problem along the highways (though MBTA officials did come out to see the graffiti along the Expressway), and sadly, visitors to our historic city will get to see continuous graffiti vandalism as they come into town.

Rather than rehash the arguments on why Massachusetts leaders should be very embarrassed about the surge of graffiti in our Commonwealth, I’d like to introduce you to places where leadership has taken a stand and graffiti is being obliterated: Seattle and Washington State.

Both the city and the state recently declared war against graffiti vandalism. In October 2022, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced the “One Seattle Graffiti Plan” with the goal to beautify Seattle and address a surge that began during the pandemic.

“We have an opportunity to envision a more beautiful Seattle – with murals and canvasses that reflect our values of creativity, inclusion, and forward thinking,” said Harrell. “Not only does tagging and graffiti detract from the vibrancy of our city, there are tangible impacts on communities targeted by hate speech, small business owners whose shops are defaced, and residents who rely on city signage for information and guidance.”

The plan created graffiti removal teams, targeted enforcement, assistance for businesses that suffer from vandalism, support for public art, and a public dashboard that tracks progress responding to graffiti customer service requests.

Beyond all that, Seattle sees graffiti as a crime.

The city’s attorney, Ann Davison, followed up the launch of One Seattle Graffiti Plan with this statement: “I am glad to see that Mayor Harrell announced steps today to improve the city’s response to the massive increase in graffiti that Seattle has experienced over the past two years. Graffiti taggers who vandalize public and private property are doing enormous harm and costing taxpayers, small businesses, and neighborhoods millions of dollars in property damage. It needs to end. For my part as City Attorney, I will be focused on enforcement strategies to arrest and prosecute the most prolific and destructive graffiti taggers. In order to see a meaningful change on our streets, the city must send a firm message that it will not tolerate continued destruction and defacement of our neighborhoods.”

Following this announcement, the city of Tacoma created its own anti-graffiti initiative, and the state legislature this past February passed an anti-graffiti law (“An Act relating to a graffiti abatement and reduction program”) that focuses on two goals. One is to “investigate and test improvements to systems capable of identifying persons who damage property with graffiti.” The second is to test ideas on graffiti removal which resulted in the state Department of Transportation using drones to paint over graffiti in hard-to-reach locations, such as bridges and inaccessible walls. Another idea being pursued is testing whether better cameras, placement of cameras, and tracking software will help detect graffiti activity.

The key elements of this effort, so far considered a success, are acknowledgment that graffiti is vandalism, costly to remove, and harmful to public and private property. Getting the city and state to cooperate around removal and announcing a plan to remove it and prevent it, including pressing charges against graffiti vandals are also essential. Lastly, looking for innovative solutions to removing graffiti, like the drone idea, can both save money and remove the graffiti quicker.

It’s past time for our governmental leaders to step up and deal with graffiti vandalism.

Bill Walczak’s column appears regularly in The Reporter.

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