On a recent wet and bright spring morning, two Seattle Graffiti Rangers parked their truck on the trail winding just below the Jose Rizal Bridge. They hauled out their paint-splattered rollers and their five-gallon buckets, and then they got to work.
In front of them, a couple throw ups covered a giant wall facing the highway. (A "throw up" is graffiti composed of big, bubble letters that writers can throw up quickly.) Outfitted in safety suits and masks, the Rangers dutifully buffed (painted over) the vibrant, colorful graffiti with a color called WSDOT Gray, a custom pigment created by the state’s transportation department. Stacy Frazier, Ranger crew chief, said graffiti writers regularly hit the wall because you can see it from the windows of the office buildings downtown.
“We did it last weekend,” said Frazier. “We knew it would be tagged by the end of the week.”
Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) established the Graffiti Rangers team back in 1994 as a way to oversee graffiti abatement on public property. More than a quarter-century later, the nuts and bolts of the job haven't changed much. Workers drive out in the morning, cover up tags big and small, and then return home. The task is Sisyphean.
“Our stance is that [graffiti abatement] is what Stacy's been doing for 20-some years. I don't think it's going away,” said SPU Clean City Division Director Lee Momon, who was working at the bridge that morning. “I think our role as SPU is just to continue to try to keep up with it and keep the city as clean as we can.”
I hauled my ass over to the bridge cleanup because Mayor Bruce Harrell recently announced the first One Seattle Day of Service, and I wanted to wrap my mind around the City's response to this practice.
The day of service, which takes place on May 21, boasts over two thousand volunteer opportunities, ranging from weed-pulling at Bitter Lake to plaque-polishing at Martin Luther King, Jr. Civil Rights Memorial Park. But the day's many opportunities to buff graffiti in neighborhoods such as Belltown, Chinatown-International District, and Fremont garnered the most press coverage — and not by accident. During his press conference announcing the event, Mayor Harrell buffed a wall for the TV cameras. He dipped a paint roller into a pool of paint and smeared it over graffiti on a building in Little Saigon. Literally painting the town gray.
Ahead of an announcement about a citywide day of community service in May, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell paints over graffiti on a building in the Chinatown-International District. pic.twitter.com/RwWWsAdSMD
— Casey Martin (@caseyworks) April 18, 2022
In a recent interview with The Stranger, the Mayor said that he’d like to enact a citywide plan to deal with graffiti by this fall. The plan, which he's calling his Many Hands Arts Initiative, won't focus only on prosecution. Instead, it'll take a more “multi-pronged” approach. “When I say ‘many hands,’ I'm not just talking about the hands of the graffiti artists, but the hands of the community and the private owners and the City employees,” Harrell said.
“I try to describe the problem of graffiti not as one of a criminal element but as one of sometimes misplaced artistic expression," he added.
The extent to which Harrell's initiative will rely on cops and jails to deter misplaced artistic expression remains to be seen, but he certainly wants to step up removal efforts across the board. However, when it comes to graffiti, subtraction almost always leads to addition.
Many people talk about the art of graffiti, but Avalon Kalin likes to talk about the art of graffiti removal, or “buffing.” Kalin, a graphic designer and street art documentarian working out of Spokane, sees removal as a form of "labor painting" carried out by city employees and made in "layered collaboration" with graffiti artists.
“For me, the beauty of graffiti removal is forever tied to the beauty of graffiti and street art,” he said in a recent interview with The Stranger.
Kalin’s observations on graffiti removal helped form the basis of Matt McCormick's 2001 short documentary, The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, which originally screened at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. This year, producers re-released it and the festival screened it again. Co-written by Kalin and McCormick and narrated by Miranda July, the film explores graffiti removal in Portland in the early 2000s. It satirizes the art world and municipal governments by positioning graffiti removal as an art form in and of itself, one born out of abstract expressionist, minimalist, and surreal art movements.
The script for the documentary emerged from conversations between Kalin and McCormick in the late 1990s and early 2000s during Portland’s epic "zero-tolerance" approach to graffiti in certain neighborhoods. As Kalin noted in his 2015 book on the subject, the two filmmakers were partially inspired by a comment from Kalin’s father, who said some of the graffiti coverups “looked a lot like Rothkos."
In the film, McCormick trains his camera on the often-overlooked corners of Portland's urban landscape. As he does so, he breaks down the types of graffiti removal into three main categories: Symmetrical, ghosting, and radical. I'll demonstrate each type in photos from around Seattle:
"Whether it's a tag or a buff or whatever, of course, the building is no longer looking the way that the builder and the designer intended for it to look," said McCormick in a recent phone interview about the nature of graffiti removal. "It’s like this game—like dogs peeing on a fire hydrant.”
In the short doc, the filmmakers see tagging and buffing as a collaborative artistic process between city employee and tagger. The graffiti artist and Ranger form a symbiotic relationship; the tagger paints the wall, and the Ranger paints over the wall, making the perfect blank canvas for the tagger to paint the wall again. Though the film is pretty tongue-in-cheek, McCormick said he and Kalin sincerely aimed to show viewers that we bring "all sorts of preconceived ideas" to discussions about "art and beauty and our visual landscape." And that's important, because when we discuss graffiti, what we’re really talking about is who gets to control our public spaces.
The city of Seattle started its contemporary campaign against graffiti in 1994 with the Graffiti Nuisance Ordinance. The law defined marking property with "paint, ink, chalk, dye or any other substance" as criminal vandalism, which is a gross misdemeanor. In the "many hands" spirit, the ordinance also outlined the process for graffiti removal, requiring property owners to remove such markings from their buildings within 10 days of notice from the City or else pay a fine.
In 2010, the City checked in on the issue and determined that graffiti writers hit public property twice as often as private property. A survey included in the audit found mixed emotions among Seattleites about graffiti, but only 40% of the 900 respondents thought it was a “medium to very big problem."
The study showed that the City spent $1.8 million to solve that "medium to very big problem" in 2009, and it ultimately made nine recommendations, which resulted in the hiring of graffiti cop Christopher Young in 2011, who held the role until 2017 before the position was discontinued in 2020.
Though the likes of Fox News make Seattle’s graffiti situation sound like a gang-war zone, the 12-year-old audit does not support the network's histrionics. Of the 556 instances of graffiti recorded in a single-day count, only five were labeled as gang-affiliated. The rest were labeled as “common tags.” (The amount of graffiti labeled "artful"? Zero).
But it's not like purely offensive graffiti does not exist. According to more recent data from SPU, the City received 28 reports of racist, hateful, and "vulgar" graffiti on public property in 2021. The office noted that all were cleared within 24-hours of getting the report.
Since the pandemic began—and especially since the June 2020 uprising—TV and traditional media sources have again sounded the alarm over the state of graffiti in the city, with some again descending into hysterics. According to SPU's office, the department received 19,650 complaints about graffiti in 2021, up from 14,000 in 2020—a 40% increase. The majority of those reports came from Seattle's Find It, Fix It app, a civic complaint tool that allows residents to ping the City about illegal dumping, dead animals, parking enforcement and the like.
The Mayor argued that noticing the uptick in graffiti around town did not require a degree in “rocket science." It’s a problem that he called a “perfect storm of non-enforcement and non-removal.” During the pandemic, the Seattle Police Department stopped enforcing graffiti as a bookable offense. Plus, with more people staying home, the rhythms of the city were thrown out of whack.
At the same time, however, Harrell has paid special attention to graffiti. While campaigning for his current job, he called tagging “anti-social behavior." In an interview during KUOW's Year in Review, he promised to “clean up this city." But in an interview with me earlier in the spring, he took a softer tone, emphasizing the need to understand the causes of graffiti more clearly, rather than simply adopting the "zero-tolerance" approach the City has taken in the past.
According to Harrell, the City spends almost $3.7 million every year on graffiti abatement, dedicating to the task 15 full-time employees across three departments: Seattle Parks and Recreation, the Seattle Department of Transportation, and Seattle Public Utilities. As the Mayor sees it, no one on the executive level is directly in charge of the issue, which leads to a “fragmented approach."
“I’m trying to centralize the approach,” he said.
With his Many Hands Arts Initiative, Harrell wants to increase funding and staff dedicated to graffiti removal. He wants to create a "single point of contact" for the issue at the City, and expand and enhance existing City-organized volunteer programs like Red Wagon Paint Out and Adopt a Street. He also wants to "activate the artistic community" to understand the practice. Another part of his approach involves clarifying a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the City and the State that prevents him from acting quickly to clean up graffiti on state-owned right-of-ways.
During our interview, he emphasized the fact that “property destruction is a crime,” but he shied away from calling for more prosecution of graffiti artists in the city. “I don’t think that strict, hard, public or police prosecution is the answer, but I do think it’s one tool in the toolbox that should be considered,” he warned.
Back under the bridge, the two Graffiti Rangers buffed tags methodically and economically, covering almost the entire wall in WSDOT Gray. They each employed distinct styles: One preferred broad strokes that ran from top to bottom while the other quickly and sharply buffed the graffiti before going back over it to make it even. Using a mixture of both paint rollers and spray paint, not a single stroke was wasted.
They made quick work of throw up that read “ALL OUTTA ENERGY” in bright red, leaving behind a segment of the wall slightly taupier in color than its original color. The rectangular section projected a ghostly presence, floating bright and gray at eye level. From where I stood looking at the still-wet wall, I thought the buff job turned it into a perfect canvas for someone to come right out and paint over it again.
Like clockwork, the Rangers hit at least two neighborhoods every day of the week to “give surface equity” to buffing graffiti, as crew chief Frazier put it. Mondays in southeast and southwest Seattle, Fridays in northeast Seattle. “It’s not just the squeaky wheel that gets service,” said Frazier, who noted that Ballard by far has the most graffiti to buff. “Everybody is getting the same amount of service no matter what.”
This year, the crew operated with a budget of roughly $2.1 million, with five permanent Rangers. Currently, SPU Clean City Division Director Momon said the agency employs two temporary Rangers to help cover some private properties, mostly hitting places that have been left vacant, or places whose owners don’t live close by. Though Frazier admitted to seeing some graffiti that looked cool, he was blunt about his distaste for it.
“I think it’s vandalism,” said Frazier, looking on at the Rangers buffing a black-and-white doodle of a face. “Because what makes it graffiti and not art is that they don’t have permission to do it…They need to find a more constructive way to showcase their talent.”
There’s a lot of tension between work that’s deemed destructive versus constructive to urban culture. One of the most lauded American artists of all time, Jean-Michel Basquiat, was a prolific street artist who started out tagging the streets of New York City and ended up painting canvases that now hang in the MoMA. Even here in Seattle, the City protects works like the Black Lives Matter street mural born during the early days of CHOP while stripping the other graffiti and murals that peppered the six blocks of the police-free zone.
That distinction between “good” and “bad” is even difficult for Harrell to define. He opted for a very Justice Potter Stewart-esque method: “Anyone with common sense would know that there are some areas that look like someone is trying to create some level of art and in other areas, it’s just destruction,” he told The Stranger.
When I asked SPU’s Momon what might help with graffiti abatement, he offered a couple of suggestions: Growing vegetation over highly tempting walls to block any tags from popping up, and installing movement lights that flash at night to avert taggers. He also suggested that private property owners move with the utmost haste to clear graffiti off so it won’t be seen. But strategically placed murals? Those are a bit more complicated.
“The mural projects used to work, but not so much anymore,” observed Frazier. He noted that over the past six or seven years, he’s been seeing more writers paint over murals. During the early stages of the pandemic, murals became a favored way to decorate the plywood protecting the windows of empty businesses. The murals definitely gave business to artists who suffered the economic downturn–which I covered extensively–but they also served as a way to protect property from errant writers looking to paint all these new canvases around the city.
To graffiti writers like Mandy,* who requested anonymity, the mural assertion is a little bogus. Mandy has been painting in Seattle for the past several months, having recently moved back after some time away. She and the artists she knows consider community murals “sacred ground.” But painted power boxes? Or geometric murals that are clearly placed on corporate coffee shops or expensive-ass condos to disincentivize someone from tagging? “Those are going to get smacked,” she laughed.
Eve*, a Seattle muralist who requested anonymity, said that in her experience, whether or not your mural gets tagged depends on its location - murals closer to high-traffic areas like parks or busy streets carry the highest risk of getting spray-painted over. She said her work has only gotten some throw ups, mostly small stuff. “It can be kinda tough, because there are a lot of graffiti people in the mural community,” Eve said, not seeming particularly bothered by it. “But it happens all the time.”
While the artists and Rangers disagreed on a lot of subjects, the one topic both sides came to a consensus on was that, regardless of policy, graffiti in the city will always exist on some level. That's partially evidenced by the Rangers' nearly 30-year existence, as well as the will of graffiti artists in the city.
"In a city with as big of a scene as Seattle with as much real estate, unless you have an army of people hitting everything every day, it's hard to imagine them keeping up," said Mandy.
And so, the collaboration will continue. The more the City buffs, the more graffiti writers will tag, reserving their worst and sloppiest work for the places the City buffs the most, according to one artist. After all, who but a Buddhist would paint a masterpiece if they knew someone would wipe it away the next day?
*Not their real name.