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Police propose graffiti ordinance

Sat., Nov. 22, 2008

It would let city bill property owners who fail to paint over all scrawls

Colorful graffiti that plasters the alleys running through the heart of downtown Spokane – often resembling the swirling, detailed spray-painted artwork on passing boxcars – is perhaps the most attractive example of graffiti.

But black initials spray-painted on a neighbor’s garage or indiscernible marks painted utility boxes fall under the same name.

And to police, every bit of it is a nuisance.

Spokane police proposed an ordinance this week that would give the city the powers to enforce removal of all graffiti, not just the roughly 15 percent of graffiti that’s gang-related, and beef up the consequences for vandals who are caught.

The ordinance would encourage businesses and homeowners to cover up graffiti, no matter how artful. Failure to do so could result in the city doing the work and billing the property owner, said Spokane police Lt. Rex Olson. In cases where the owner is disabled or elderly or can’t afford to take care of the problem, the city would offer help.

Property owners could assert that they’ve chosen to have graffiti adorn their property, but if it’s deemed to be a nuisance, it would still have to go.

The proposed ordinance reflects laws already in place in about 95 percent of U.S. cities, Olson said.

“The goal isn’t to re-victimize people,” he added, but to fix the problem. The ordinance is scheduled for a first reading in Spokane City Council on Dec. 1.

Council President Joe Shogan and Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin, members of the Public Safety Committee, responded favorably to Olson’s proposal this week during the committee’s meeting.

Eric Walker, coordinator of a program called Paint Out Graffiti that works with the Spokane Police Department, said graffiti contributes to blight. “Graffiti leads to decreased sales at nearby businesses, decreased revenue and a decrease in tourism dollars,” he said. “Who needs that right now?”

He said he’s received 400 reports of graffiti since the beginning of the year.

XO Communications and the Crescent Building in downtown Spokane are frequently hit.

“Every time we clean it up, we have more problems and it just gets painted again,” said Jon Michlig, one of the Crescent Building’s owners. “We haven’t had anything new in two years because we’ve left it.”

The Crescent Building’s owners have been frustrated by what happens when vandals are caught.

“We’ve caught the kids doing it before and the kids were brought to court, and nothing was done,” Michlig said.

The proposed ordinance increases penalties based on the amount of damage caused by the graffiti, Olson said.

The Rev. Andy CastroLang, of the Westminster Congregational United Church of Christ, said the church’s caretaker paints over graffiti on its property as quickly as possible.

“The abandoned building (next door), however, does not get cleaned up and it is covered, covered, covered,” he wrote in an e-mail.

“Goodness, do we have graffiti.”

Some people consider graffiti art.

“I have never thought that there was a graffiti problem,” Justin Bayley, who lives in the Logan neighborhood, wrote in an e-mail.

“I do see gang scrawling everywhere though. It’s not a problem, but it is annoying, tacky, and silly. Tagging, however, can be very nice depending on where it is. It’s also a great form of local art.”

Contact Jody Lawrence-Turner at (509) 459-5593 or

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