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Oakland Struggles to Keep Pace With Changing Graffiti Culture

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Oakland relies on graffiti complaints before citing a business, which is required to clean up the graffiti in 10 days.  (Susan Cohen/KQED)

In West Oakland, mint-green paint covers up a large swath of letters on the side of a concrete wall. Lauren Westreich has already brought out the paint four times since relocating her business here in February. She remembers helping paint her neighbor’s wall, too, which was hit by graffiti 30 feet high.

“Somebody came in literally the next day and took a spray can of paint and just scribbled on the wall every inch of freshly painted surface,” said Westreich.

The city's cost of cleaning up graffiti has been increasing, not including the dollars spent by private business owners like Westreich. While the city is hungry to keep and grow business in areas like West Oakland, a new task force with limited resources is trying to address an old symbol of urban grit in the face of a changing Oakland.

The suspects are not from around here, says Assistant to the City Administrator Joe DeVries.

“I caught a couple of guys with spray paint in their back pockets taking pictures of their work and they had Washington plates. I caught another guy doing this, taking pictures of the graffiti art, with Oregon plates over in West Oakland,” said DeVries, who is a member of the city’s new graffiti task force.


On a Wednesday morning, DeVries looks through a green book that has pictures of Oakland graffiti. Colorful monikers fill the pages; he calls them “criminal vandals.” The task force he’s a part of is trying to track who is tagging what and how much money each name has cost the city and private business.

City administrator Joe DeVries say Oakland is trying to build cases against illegal graffiti writers.
City staffer Joe DeVries say Oakland is trying to build cases against illegal graffiti writers.

In 2013, Oakland passed a law that allowed the city to fine people caught tagging or defacing property without the owner’s consent. The idea is to help the city recoup costs without sending the case to court, where the level of proof is higher, said DeVries. The city hasn’t fined anyone under the law yet, he said, but there are two major cases that the task force is working on.

DeVries said Oakland has had success with its illegal dumping task force, which has caught around 150 people and gathered about $50,000 in fines over the past year. But it’s easy for people to take a snapshot of a license plate from a phone, he said. With graffiti, it’s harder to identify people in pictures and prove their guilt.

Graffiti Costs Increasing

Meanwhile, Oakland saw an increase of more than 50 percent in costs for graffiti cleanup between 2012 and 2014. Last year, the city spent $1.2 million on graffiti. Caltrans is also cleaning up more graffiti on state-owned property in the city. In fiscal year 2012, that totaled  339,985 square feet (roughly six football fields). But the real costs, to private businesses, can't be calculated, DeVries said.

If cited, an Oakland business owner has 10 days to clean up graffiti.
If cited, an Oakland business owner has 10 days to clean up graffiti. (Susan Cohen/KQED)

Oakland requires businesses to remove graffiti on their own. DeVries said the city doesn’t have the resources to provide paint each time a building is defaced. But he said city officials also don’t drive around picking out buildings to cite. Oakland relies on complaints to the Public Works call center and the city’s SeeClickFix website, which allows anyone to report blight and other problems directly. There were more than 6,000 graffiti complaints last year, according to the city’s open data website.

“The perpetrators of the graffiti know this is a low-level crime,” said Michael Herling, chairman of the group West Oakland Business Alert, which has identified graffiti as one of nine obstacles to keeping and growing business in the neighborhood.

Herling’s West Oakland janitorial company faces a concrete wall that’s part of the recycling center across the street. While not a fan of graffiti, Herling admits there’s a big difference between the type of colorful pieces on that wall, called burners, and the “throw-ups” right next door to him.

(Click here to see a video explaining the different types of graffiti)

“One side is actually kind of cool art and the other side is graffiti,” he said.

Across the street from Michael Herling's business in West Oakland is the 'cool art.'
Across the street from Michael Herling's business in West Oakland is the 'cool art.' (Devin Katayama/KQED)
Across from the "cool art" is the more typical graffiti that business argue leads to blight and other problems.
On Herling's side of the street is the more typical graffiti that West Oakland business owners say hurts business growth. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Murals as Solution

As KQED reported in its Bay Curious series, some street art gets more respect from graffiti writers than others. Herling said that he hasn’t seen any tags on the tops of the large, more artistic pieces across the street. That’s why some cities see value in spending money on murals. In the 2013-14 city budget, $400,000 was allocated for graffiti abatement, with a concentration on murals.

But getting that money has been like “pulling teeth,” said Desi Mundo, founder of Community Rejuvenation Project, which has painted more than 100 murals around the city. The allocation for murals has been the only proactive step the city has taken to address graffiti, he said, and Oakland's new law that allows the city to fine people caught writing graffiti isn’t going to help.

“It’s a waste of time, a waste of funds," he said.

Mundo says the only solution is supporting more public art like murals, which have also been controversial for some business owners who fear retaliation if they don’t allow graffiti artists the right to use their buildings. Mundo dismisses that, but he also knows some illegal graffiti writers don't respect private owners.

To them, “a blank wall is a blank wall,” he said.

Mundo says murals offer a way to connect with communities where they’re at. One of his most recent projects is the Alice Street mural downtown, which pays tribute to community leaders and the city's culture.

“We want to see community-led projects that reflect back on the history,” Mundo said.

Desi Mundo says murals should reflect the communities they are in. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

But Mundo recognizes that there has been a shift in the demographics of graffiti writers in Oakland and that “there’s definitely a greater disconnection between the neighborhood and the people who are going out and painting illegally.” At the same time, what’s making Oakland attractive to these outsiders is the city’s vibrant arts and culture scene, he said.

“Oakland is capitalizing on the very thing they’re trying to destroy."

DeVries said he would support property owners and graffiti writers who want to work harmoniously to find more community spaces for graffiti art. But the city’s resources are thin, he said, and the conversation would have to begin with graffiti writers.

“We would likely embrace it if the community embraced it. But if the community is feeling literally vandalized and terrorized by this, we’re not going to embrace that,” he said.


West Oakland business owner Lauren Westreich says her business has been hit by graffiti four times since opening in February.
West Oakland business owner Lauren Westreich says her business has been hit by graffiti four times since opening in February. (Devin Katayama/KQED)

Right now, businesses are feeling vandalized, and they’re not getting very far addressing the problem. If a business is cited, it has 10 days to clean up the graffiti, but some have said they can’t paint over it quickly enough.

Business owners like Lauren Westreich continue to report and paint out graffiti immediately.

“It’s very difficult to continue to do it when it feels like there isn’t a robust response because of limited resources and time,” she said.


Westreich said spending time and money on problems like graffiti and illegal dumping detracts attention and resources from much larger problems Oakland faces, like economic and social justice.

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