Graffiti reports on the rise in D.C.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly placed Georgetown in Ward 1. The neighborhood is in Ward 2. This version has been corrected.

July 29, 2011

The District is one of the few large urban areas seeing an apparent increase in graffiti, and officials are uncertain about the causes.

The city is on track to spend twice as much to remove graffiti from public and private buildings this year compared with 2010.

In the previous fiscal year, the Department of Public Works removed 1,780 instances of graffiti. But in the first seven months of the current fiscal year, DPW workers have removed more than double that: 3,946.

Officials in Baltimore and Philadelphia say the amount of graffiti is down in their cities. Locally, Montgomery County officials say they have seen a slight uptick in tagging over the previous year, while in Fairfax County, officials say the amount has remained steady.

“These reports go up and down,” said DPW director William O. Howland Jr. But he acknowledges that the most recent numbers in the District represent a dramatic shift.

The increase comes as the city kicks off the fifth year of the program MuralsDC, created by D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) to reduce the amount of illegal graffiti by recruiting taggers and young adults to paint murals in popular tagging spots.

Howland said that most of the recent graffiti are concentrated in Ward 1, which includes the 14th and U Street corridor, as well as Adams Morgan. Graffiti is also on the rise in wards 2 and 6, he added. The District, unlike many other cities, will remove graffiti from private property as well as public property.

The majority of tags don’t appear to be gang-related, Howland said.

“We know there’s a cycle: that when there’s warm weather, there’s more activity,” said DPW spokeswoman Nancee Lyons. “But [for] people who do this sort of thing, it’s an act of impulse, so there’s not necessarily any rhyme or reason.”

Mazi Mutafa, executive director of Words Beats & Life, a nonprofit group that works closely with the MuralsDC program, said the increase may reflect better reporting rather than a rise in tagging. With more people living in and frequenting rapidly gentrifying sections of the city, including the U Street corridor, there is more foot traffic and awareness, he said.

Nuisance or art?

Some wonder whether an increase is being fueled by the growing acceptance of graffiti as an art form, particularly in this region, where some D.C. taggers have gone on to achieve commercial and artistic success.

In February, the Corcoran Gallery of Art sponsored a talk by Bethesda-born Roger Gastman, who used the tag “Clear ” and has written several books on the history of street art. Borf (a.k.a. John Tsombikos), the art student from Great Falls whose distinctive stenciled tags marked the city in 2005, staged an art show two years after he served a month in jail on a felony count of property destruction.

In April, an exhibit of street art at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles fueled discussion about whether it was appropriate to highlight work that is essentially illegal — a debate that intensified after taggers vandalized the neighborhood and businesses around the museum.

In Philadelphia, where many think that a robust murals program has helped reduce the amount of illegal tagging, city officials take a more practical view.

“I don’t call them graffiti artists. I call them vandals,” said Tom Conway, the official responsible for Philadelphia’s graffiti abatement program. “You want to place a graffiti tag, do it in your bedroom.”

DPW officials hoped to encouraged a serious discussion about the issue this month by bringing together groups with different viewpoints. Before it even happened, the city received angry calls from residents unhappy about the “Art of Vandalism” title.

The meeting itself skewed in a different direction, with an audience that mostly saw art in the tagging.
Graffiti “has always been art,” Mutafa said. “The difference today is people who saw it as art before are now grown-ups and now are in positions of power and influence.”

There was little discussion at the meeting about the cost and consequences. D.C. officials said the city will likely spend $450,000 on graffiti removal this year, compared with $200,000 last year.

“It might be beautiful, but if I don’t want it, it’s still vandalism,” Lyons told the crowd.

Merchants not buying it

Shannan Fales, owner of Junction, a vintage and resale boutique on U Street NW, said she has noticed an increase in graffiti in recent months. The sign in front of her shop was tagged a few months ago, and she has seen owners of nearby businesses cleaning graffiti from their shops on a monthly basis. Although she can appreciate the artistic merits of some of the tags, she said, that doesn’t mean she welcomes them.

“When it comes to the tagging or the defacing of property, I don’t believe that should be a part of the culture or art of a city,” she said.

Kristen Barden, executive director of the Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District, said graffiti hits the area in waves. In March, someone known as “Nero” tagged several buildings along 18th Street. Since then, activity has slowed.

And although some taggers may argue that their work is art, business owners have a different perspective.

“About 99 percent of the time, [business owners] say, ‘Take it off,’ ” Barden said.

Despite the apparent rise in graffiti activity, city officials say MuralsDC is working. Howland said areas where murals replaced chronically tagged walls have reported fewer tagging incidents. But the city acknowledges that graffiti remains a stubborn problem in many other areas. The key, they said, will be finding ways to mediate between property owners and taggers.

“MuralsDC is a great first step,” Mutafa said. “Before this program, there was no choice for taggers. It was illegal. Now they have options. Now they have a place to create.”

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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