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.