Tagged! Graffiti Is Gaming Our City

Jan 15, 2020 at 12:00 pm

For more than two years taggers have kept hitting the back of Jennifer Williams’ Main Street building. She painted over it a couple times while facing violation notices from the city and a $300 fine in April, but they struck again and again.

The latest tag, spanning the building’s third and fourth floors, is visible to everyone driving on Interstate 64 past downtown.

Williams told LEO in the spring that she couldn’t afford to keep painting over graffiti without city help.

“I’m doing everything I can to pay the mortgage every month,” she said.

Her dilemma highlights the growing frustration property owners have with taggers and the lack of city’s response. But it also reflects the city’s resignation over the extent of tagging on private and public property and how difficult, if not impossible, it is to prevent it, especially when the city faces enormous budget pressures.

For instance, the city this year could not afford to add a second two-person crew responsible for removing tags on public property.

“There’s consequences to having smaller government, and I hate to say that, but we’ve got a big city, 400 square miles, so that becomes a challenge,” Mayor Greg Fischer told LEO.

Property owners say they feel victimized twice by graffiti — once by the vandal and again when the city cites them and levies fines. They said they resent being cited and fined when the city isn’t doing enough to remove graffiti on its own property. 

“Why should you have to remove the graffiti from your building, and here’s a street sign in front of your property which is covered?” said Josh White, the founder of the grassroots Louisville Graffiti Abatement Coalition. “It’s hypocrisy. It’s the worst case of hypocrisy.”

The tagging on Williams’ building is just one of hundreds of cases the city logs every year.

White’s group found graffiti on 2,626 surfaces on private property in 2015, and that was in only 18 of Louisville’s 69 neighborhoods. 

The city, by contrast, had 977 defacement of property cases open in fiscal year 2015, according to its data — half as many instances of graffiti as White’s group had found. (“Defacement of property” is a category of property maintenance violations in the city that includes graffiti, primarily).

Regardless of the number, what is clear is that taggers are gaming us, the city. And Louisville’s government is not doing what it could: It has had just one graffiti abatement crew for public property since 2017, as well as 30 Codes & Regulations department inspectors who, along with other duties, enforce removal of graffiti on private property. 

But the city has no cohesive strategy for removing its graffiti in a timely manner, catching vandals and stemming further attacks — recommendations made by the U.S. Department of Justice for how to handle graffiti.

For example, the federal government and experts say the key to preventing further graffiti is to remove the first marks within 48 hours. The city puts the onus on property owners to remove tags on their property, exerting pressure through warning letters and fines that are often put off, as in Williams’ case, for months or years. 

Unlike some cities, Louisville does not have a law enforcement position dedicated to combating graffiti, nor does it have a supervisor specifically dedicated to overseeing graffiti abatement.

The city doesn’t even have a web page devoted to graffiti for the public.

The city could not tell LEO how much in fines has been collected specifically for graffiti. 

The city of Omaha, Nebraska, with a population of just under a million, budgets $520,000 annually on graffiti abatement, as compared to Louisville, which has about 1.2 million people and spends an estimated $160,000 a year. Omaha has three removal trucks compared to Louisville’s one, conducts an annual graffiti count and, most surprisingly, removes graffiti on private property — like Williams’ building — as well as on public property.

In Cincinnati, the city says it removes most graffiti on public property within 72 hours. Louisville gives itself 30 days to do the same. 

Robert Kirchdorfer, director of the Department of Codes & Regulations, defended Louisville’s graffiti abatement efforts, which he noted included the addition of a graffiti abatement crew for public property, leading to more cleanup. 

“I think we’ve removed a lot,” he said. “And I’ve seen spots we’ve constantly been hit, they’ve moved, or they’ve stopped.”

He said that the city works to strike a balance between pushing private property owners to remove graffiti quickly and not victimizing them further. But, he also acknowledged that the city’s graffiti abatement efforts are limited by a multi-million dollar budget shortfall due to increased pension costs.

Public vs. Private 

In October, several local groups, frustrated by recent vandalism of bus stop seats and businesses, held a community forum in The Highlands about vandalism. The moderator asked the 30 or so people there who thought the city was doing enough to address graffiti. 

No one raised a hand.

Stephen Pate did not attend that meeting, but he is among those property owners who are frustrated with the city’s response to graffiti. His Portland motorcycle restoration business has been tagged around 18 times in the 10 years that he’s owned the building, although the worst of it occurred during a three year period from 2015 to 2017. The city was never far behind the taggers, letting him know that the graffiti must be removed, Pate said. He estimated that his time cleaning the graffiti himself was the equivalent of $10,000 in lost income. And, he said, the city tried to fine him $100, but the inspector dropped the penalty after Pate talked with them.

Pate said he understands why property owners should be responsible for cleaning up graffiti on their buildings. He just wants the city to do its part.

“I think that until they can show positive traction on removing it from public property, why are they going after private property owners?” he asked. 

In the past three years, the city has made more of an effort to clean graffiti on public property. In 2017, Codes & Regulations hired a two-person team to remove graffiti on Metro-owned property, going from having no one dedicated to abatement to having a crew that handled 1,176 cases of graffiti on public property in fiscal year 2019.

Budget cuts are hurting further progress. The council set aside money last year for Kirchdorfer to hire another two-person graffiti abatement crew. But he was not able to do so after budget cuts. 

The city has closed many of its defacement of property violations: A LEO analysis of Metro data found that, out of 4,266 individual violations for defacement of property logged since 2008, 88% (3,791) of them had been resolved as of mid-June 2019. 

For its analysis, LEO considered violations closed if its status description said “total compliance” or “nonhazardous” or if the violation was “moved” and, therefore, not included in further inspections. Violations may have been left out if there were multiple on one property logged in one day.

Yet it still is difficult to measure the city’s success because of the way it keeps data on graffiti, which relies mostly on reports from the public. Kirchdorfer told LEO that the city’s data does not represent all of the graffiti in the city. In fiscal year 2019, the city did log fewer graffiti violations than it had since 2016, but Kirchdorfer said through a spokesperson that the reason was not clear. 

Stephen Pate’s Portland motorcycle restoration business has been tagged around 18 times in the 10 years.  |  Photo By Danielle Grady
Stephen Pate’s Portland motorcycle restoration business has been tagged around 18 times in the 10 years. | Photo By Danielle Grady

Fast Removal

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services recommends the removal of graffiti within 24 to 48 hours. That strips away the reward that vandals receive from seeing their tag in a public place.

This is a struggle for Codes & Regulations, as officials say they try to seek a middle ground between quick removal and the ability of property owners to get rid of graffiti and pay for that abatement. Louisville shoots for graffiti removal within 48 hours if the vandalism contains hate speech or is vulgar or gang related. But, the city gives itself 30 days to remove graffiti from public property, and for private property owners, the city issues violation notices that carry various time frames for removal. These notices typically give property owners 10 to 30 days to remove the graffiti, but inspectors have the discretion to extend this time frame. Bad weather can often prevent quick removal for property owners and the city.

Inspectors are dispatched to check out graffiti vandalism on private property if it is reported by a member of the public through Louisville’s Metro311 app or hotline, or if an inspector spots graffiti while out on another job. If the property owner doesn’t clean up their graffiti after a warning, they could get fined.

Codes & Regulations main priority is gaining compliance, not money, from property owners, said Will Ford, a former spokesperson for the department.

“Codes & Reguations isn’t a for-profit department,” he said.“You might have somebody that got tagged and, you know, they’re like, ‘I’m struggling to pay bills, and I don’t have a lot of time to do this,’ and the inspector says, ‘OK, I can give you ‘x’ amount of days.’”

Still, property owners often ignore the city’s fines, and they get away with it, too — up to a point. 

In Kirchdorfer’s 30 years working for code enforcement, he has observed (although he didn’t provide any data to back up his claims) that most fines aren’t paid until three to five years after they’re first incurred. That’s because, as a last resort, the city places liens on properties with chronically unpaid fines. The liens prevent property owners from selling their buildings until they pay off their outstanding fees. 

The city does not keep track of how much it collects in fines from property owners with graffiti, but it does know how much it takes in from building owners with other property maintenance violations: $3.4 million for fiscal year 2019 as of May 31.

There are two other graffiti abatement recommendations from the federal government that do not burden property owners as much as rapid removal and could even help them.

Louisville still does not follow them.

More Police Involvement

The Office of Community Oriented Policing Services recommends that cities increase detection of graffiti vandals, such as through police patrols and video cameras, and it suggests that cities increase the difficulty of reoffending for vandals, including through the use of physical barriers and arrests of chronic offenders.

Louisville doesn’t have physical barriers at graffiti hot spots. It does have video cameras to catch property crimes, primarily for catching illegal dumping, said Kirchdorfer. 

As far as the city’s response to the criminal side of graffiti, LMPD is uninterested in proactively patrolling city streets to catch graffiti vandals in the act.

“We investigate crimes; we don’t mitigate crimes,” said Public Information Officer Lamont Washington, although he added that if an officer caught a graffiti vandal tagging a building, they would, of course, stop them. 

Kirchdorfer’s code enforcement officers take pictures of graffiti that they abate, and he said that those photos have been used to help LMPD build cases against taggers. In December, LMPD arrested a suspected prolific graffiti vandal, according to WHAS-11. 

Washington could not say how many graffiti arrests there have been in Louisville in recent years.

If LMPD receives a criminal complaint about graffiti causing property damage, Washington said, an officer takes a report and launches an investigation. But that investigation doesn’t go far unless one of three things are present, Washington said: a witness to the crime, security footage from the property owner or a recognizable tag that the investigating officer could check against previous cases of graffiti. Otherwise, finding the tagger is “almost impossible,” he said.

Josh White, founder of the nonprofit Louisville Graffiti Abatement Coalition.
Josh White, founder of the nonprofit Louisville Graffiti Abatement Coalition.

No Cohesive Strategy

After five years running the Graffiti Abatement Coalition, White has developed recommendations for what the city could do more of to stem graffiti:

1. Devote a page of the city’s website to graffiti awareness

2. Create an LMPD position devoted to graffiti vandalism

3. Hire a director of graffiti abatement

4. Form a city advisory committee on graffiti 

In an interview, Fischer told LEO that Louisville needs more revenue to hire more employees. The city plans to lobby the state legislature this year to allow it to levy a new restaurant tax.

What could Louisville look like if it did devote more to graffiti abatement, whether that be through effort, money or both?

White pointed to cities that reduced high rates of graffiti vandalism.

“And it wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t, like, an economic fluctuation,” he said. “It was purposeful, and it was through best practices.”

Like: Omaha, Nebraska. 

In 2013, Omaha counted 2,828 tags in its annual graffiti census. That was two years into a graffiti abatement program that dramatically beefed up the city’s efforts. Now, seven years later, Omaha has continued to reduce its graffiti — down 85% since 2013. In last year’s census, the city found only 410 tags.

What Omaha Could Teach Louisville 

Kayleen Young, Omaha’s graffiti abatement coordinator, remembers when her city barely paid attention to graffiti. 

“We really didn’t have a focus,” she said.

But then, a local neighborhood association secured grant funding to hire a graffiti abatement specialist from San Jose to evaluate their program. 

At first, city officials weren’t thrilled, Young said. But, once the specialist presented a set of recommendations to them, that changed.

“We kind of got rid of that mentality, and he gave us some stuff to work with,” said Young. “And it has worked.” 

Last year, her team removed 6,009 tags across the city on public and private property. Last fiscal year in Louisville, the city removed 1,176 tags on public property and oversaw the fixing of 688 defacement of property violations on private property. 

Omaha follows many of the graffiti abatement recommendations that Louisville doesn’t: An entire collection of pages on its website is devoted to its graffiti abatement efforts, Young acts as a director of graffiti abatement and her advisory, or “graffiti partnership,” committee meets four times a year. The city has a law enforcement officer assigned to investigate graffiti cases who caught about nine vandals in 2019 as of October, according to Young.

Omaha has three graffiti-abatement vans with a four-person crew: two painters, one power washer (borrowed from the city’s street maintenance department) and Young. One employee runs a 100-mile route through the city, cleaning up all of the graffiti that they see, going as far as they can, every day. The other workers fill work orders that are called in or head to one of the top-10 neighborhoods that Young’s department has determined are the worst for graffiti.

Omaha also has an active volunteer base and publicity initiative. Volunteers can call in cases of graffiti or abate it on their own. To help, the city provides graffiti removal kits, which contain graffiti wipes. Young also takes the city’s vans to community events and goes to elementary schools. 

Omaha’s graffiti efforts aren’t perfect. Young said that the city struggles with the criminal side of graffiti. Due to state law, the city isn’t allowed to detain minors for misdemeanors, including vandalism, and adults who are caught often can’t afford restitution, or they avoid community service orders.

Omaha does something that neither White nor the federal government recommend, although it’s certainly helped reduce their vandalism numbers: It removes graffiti on private property. 

This doesn’t work for every city, because it can get pricey. Omaha is smaller than Louisville, but it devotes almost $400,000 more to graffiti abatement efforts.  

Cincinnati removes graffiti on private property in first instances. It outspends Louisville on abatement — $210,000 each year, according to the city. It wants graffiti removed from public property within 72 hours. Most of the time, Cincinnati hits its target, too, said Matthew Mitchell, a structural maintenance worker for the city. 

“We usually don’t go over 72 hours unless it is a graffiti that is on a second story or a third story that we can’t reach within 72 hours,” he said.

The city also partners with a nonprofit called Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, which maintains a database of known taggers. As of August, the city had arrested 17 graffiti vandals and prosecuted five under this partnership.

In Omaha, Young has noticed that aggressively targeting graffiti has stopped some vandals from tagging certain areas altogether. 

A recent example was one street corner, which was getting tagged consistently. Every time Young’s crew would cover it up, it would get graffitied again a day and a half later. So, Young began directing her crew to remove the graffiti in the mornings before the vandals could admire their handiwork. 

“Absolutely the faster you get it down, it deters them. It might be a little battle for a week or so or a couple weeks, like, ‘hey, we’re going to do it again.’ Well, so are we,” said Young. “...So, now, it’s been about a week and a half, and they haven’t done that building again.”

Young doesn’t think it’s possible to completely eliminate graffiti in a city, but it is important to at least slow it down.

“I think it just giving back to your community, and it helps your community look better,” she said. 

White, however, has given up on fighting Louisville’s graffiti. He plans to disband the Graffiti Abatement Coalition soon and concentrate on his new job as a chief technology officer of a medical device company.

“6 years is a long time to fight to see such little progress on such an obvious problem,” he said in a text message. 

As for Jennifer Williams, her building is under contract to be sold for reasons unrelated to its vandalism. 

She may be moving on from the property, but its graffiti remains. •

Data scientist Robert Kahne helped with this story.