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Redefining Seattle graffiti laws is a sticky issue

By Meghan Brown, James Gannon and Aaron Gordon
November, 2010

The City Auditor’s Office recently released its first audit on Seattle’s graffiti prevention and removal efforts. The report revealed that last year the city of Seattle spent around $1.8 million removing graffiti from public property.

Based on a web survey of 900 Seattle business owners and residents, the audit concluded that 39 percent don’t mind graffiti while another 40 percent view it as a medium-to-large problem. These statistics appear to correlate with the public rate of victimization, with 37 percent of the public having never been victims, and 33 having been a victim at least once in the past year. The report concludes that people whose property has been vandalized believe graffiti is a problem, while those who haven’t suffered property damage don’t.

“Very few graffiti artists are often responsible for the majority of the crimes,” says City Auditor David Jones. For this reason, the report suggests implementing a photo database that tracks graffiti in the greater Seattle area. Jones believes the proposed database will provide the necessary evidence to prosecute prolific graffiti artists.

The report also suggests amending the Seattle Municipal Code to include stickers as illegal. According to Jane Dunkel, the assistant city auditor, stickers were the most commonly used graffiti medium in each surveyed area of Seattle. Of the stickers that the audit team saw, many were postal labels tagged with graffiti.

Sticker artists believe that if the law were to prohibit stickers as it prohibits graffiti, it would ignore fundamental differences between the two forms of expression.

They purport to have an unspoken code of ethics that urges them to stay away from private property. “You don’t put stickers on mom-and-pop joints. You don’t etch in windows. You don’t do something that makes people suffer by losing a great deal of money,” claims a veteran sticker artist who signs her work under the name Maggie.

Maggie views entertainment value as essential to her stickers. “If the art makes you take a second glance or makes you smile, job well done.”

The content of sticker art can range from lighthearted cartoon images, to advertisements, to tagged postal stickers. The auditor has yet to distinguish which types should be illegal. Many North Seattle businesses use stickers to advertise, so the distinction between legal and illegal stickers is especially crucial for them to know.

Maggie asks, “What are they gonna do? Fine a business every time one of its stickers is placed on a light pole?”

Under the Graffiti Nuisance Code, property owners are required to promptly remove graffiti once notified by the city or face a fine.

Brandon Wright, owner of a graffiti-removal business, says the city holds a double standard to business owners who’ve been targeted with graffiti. “The government shouldn’t be subjecting private property owners to fines if it can’t entirely take care of graffiti on public property.”

Wright believes that graffiti vandalism will never be solved if taggers and sticker artists don’t have an outlet.

He says, “The city and the people need to promote free walls for people to put their art on.”

Produced by students in CLP-taught Multimedia Freelancing class, Summer 2010.

Read previous stories from the Student Projects:

Crime Prevention Officers Face Budget Axe, The Homeless Neighbor, Buckaroo Tavern Pours Last Drink, Recession Sparks Entrepreneurialism in Ballard, The Missing Link and Lights Out, Computer On

Learn more about the nonprofit Common Language Project


24 reader comments so far ↓

  • 1 LarryB // Nov 11, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    I’ve got no problem with stickers on the backs of signs or on fixtures like lightpoles. As long as they aren’t stuck on windows, the front of signs or walls, I don’t see what the problem is. Painted graffiti, on the other hand, can be hugely expensive to remove and is discourteous. (Yeah, I care about courtesy.) What we need are more venues like the SODO Free Wall, and more solid muralists like Henry.

  • 2 Anonymous // Nov 11, 2010 at 6:49 pm

    The actual amount of legitimate “graffiti” vs tagging is the real issue. Tagging is the high volume ugly crap that is nothing more than an eyesore. The graffiti can be art, but unfortunately is rarely more than cheap aping of styles that were played out thirty years ago. The wheat pasting of posters and even the smaller stickers can occasionally be interesting since the art making part can be done in a more controlled environment but even then much of it just comes down to small scale commercial advertising.

  • 3 KF // Nov 11, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    What about the corporate-sponsored, mindrot that invades our spaces more and more, on the sides of roads, on buses, and ever-increasingly draped across downtown buildings..? Maybe the city could remove that crap :)

  • 4 KF // Nov 11, 2010 at 7:40 pm

    What about the corporate-sponsored, mindrot that invades our spaces more and more, on the sides of roads, on buses, and ever-increasingly draped across downtown buildings..? Maybe the city could remove that crap :)

  • 5 Suzanne // Nov 12, 2010 at 12:37 am

    Oh, good grief. Graffiti “artists” and sticker “artists” can do whatever they like – on their OWN property. THAT’s the “outlet.” If a purchasing one’s own canvas was good enough for Picasso, it’s good enough for street punks.

  • 6 FREMIKE // Nov 12, 2010 at 3:07 am

    Its all clutter sticker, spray paint, markers, etc. I don’t care what your tag name is or what message you are trying to relay it is clutter. I collect stickers for my own personal placement (snowboard, surfboard, car, etc). Some of the stickers and graffiti arent even legible what the point in that ? I want to know why somebody would tag a word that is illegible on the Fremont underpass ? are there gangs in Fremont ? NO, so some genius is stopping by just to tag over a artistic piece ? we just keep getting better and better dont we…FREMIKE

  • 7 Stevejobsturtleneck // Nov 12, 2010 at 8:57 am

    “They purport to have an unspoken code of ethics that urges them to stay away from private property. “You don’t put stickers on mom-and-pop joints. You don’t etch in windows. You don’t do something that makes people suffer by losing a great deal of money,” claims a veteran sticker artist who signs her work under the name Maggie.”

    Go ask any business on Pike/Pine about “3A Crew” window etching and tagging bathrooms. Hell, There’s a HUGE 3A glass etch tag on the Bauhaus window. Fuck taggers.

  • 8 Phil // Nov 12, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    I don’t like graffiti when it covers the front of a no parking sign, and then I get a ticket because I parked there.

  • 9 Eldardmomfat // Nov 13, 2010 at 3:23 pm

    thats exectly it…why add more mindrot (corporate or not?) to our visual reality?
    if the corporate mindrot is unacceptable how does amateur mindrot help matters…iguess if you can’t be part of the solution then be part of the problem? wow that is stupid

  • 10 Cat-Country // Nov 15, 2010 at 7:48 pm

    Henry is a one trick pony. He’s no Banksy. Seen one Henry you’ve seem em all.

    A senior female sticker person? I’m pretty sure all the sticker slangers are all male, so I wonder who they talked to. They didn’t talk to the SPOOK STREET SOLDIERS who have gone all-city Seattle time and time again. Neither did they speak to the DEUCE STREET DOOKIES who also represent the set.

    I think the city needs to spend less time complaining about this and focus on busted up property, like Sunset Bowl and where the Dennys is at.

  • 11 femalestickerslinger // Apr 15, 2011 at 6:09 am

    Ha, I am just now reading this article and it’s comments, since I’m doing some research for a paper. A little late for a comment, I know but I couldn’t resist when I read “I’m pretty sure all the sticker slangers are male, so I wonder who they talked to.” Really? That’s hysterical!

  • 12 Johncootrane // Apr 23, 2011 at 5:36 am

    Ive got to say you are retarded for thinking that the only people who make stickers are male. In fact, you should probably just kill yourself for being so stupid. We dont need your genes being passed down. The world is in enough jeopardy already.

    Just so that you know, I am a MALE sticker artist, but I know PLENTY of girls who make stickers world wide that I have traded with, and talked to. In fact there are at least 4 to 5 girls in seattle that are well known in scene, and in most cases more so then many of their male counterparts.

    Also, it is more then clear that you have NO inkling or knowledge about the street art/ graffiti scene world wide. Bringing Banksy into this conversation is like bringing Jackson Pollock into a conversation about Michael Angelo just because they both paint. Not only are their styles completely different, their art is completely incomparable in nature. BANKSY is a stencil artist, and normally the only street artist newfags like you know about. He is an illegal artist that has turned into a fine artist with the commercialization of his art. HENRY is a fine artist that paints large scale murals and canvases. Not only is his art not commercialized, but he has done most of these murals for free, and has begun to get commissions. He does not do illegal work at all, and will never be in the same category as banksy.

    Also, Henry is very talented. I dont see you out on the streets, painting like crazy and making a name for yourself. The size of the murals that he has created should speak for themselves anyways. That shit is no cup of tea to produce. His subject matter does change throughout his work, and he has been improving drastically since some of his starting murals. I cant hate on talented progress, and neither should anyone else.

  • 13 Iankeller // Feb 2, 2012 at 5:04 am

    Do us all a favor Suzanne and keep your 1950s hokey-dokey-Rorschach-human-degrading-ivory-tower comments to yourself.

  • 14 Roy Souther // Feb 2, 2012 at 5:13 am

    I do agree that some graffiti is hard to read, but illegible? To you perhaps. I’ve encountered graffiti tags on walls for 3 decades now and I can honestly say that it is all a code. You just don’t happen to be privy to the cipher of the text meaning the message of the tag wasn’t meant for you and others who can’t read it. I can guarantee there’ll be a person who will look under that overpass and understand what they are reading.

  • 15 Anonamous // Jun 12, 2012 at 11:12 am

    In the future Graffiti will be a means of Social Media just like facebook. It is already growing at an exponential rate. Soon more people with be doing graffiti than people who are willing to paint over it. Graffiti is an art form. Why waste 1.8 million of our tax dollars on covering it up? Its just going to happen again and again and again…

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