Graffiti Surged During the Pandemic. Cities Are Playing Catch Up to Remove It. | Mint

Graffiti Surged During the Pandemic. Cities Are Playing Catch Up to Remove It.

Graffiti near the Howard Street Bridge in Baltimore.
Graffiti near the Howard Street Bridge in Baltimore.

Summary

Seattle, Baltimore, New York and others deal with spray-painted vandalism that is “out of control.”

BALTIMORE—Eric Ford and Tony Clark rolled up to the defaced yellow crosswalk sign marked with graffiti tags and stickers.

They used a solvent to wipe away the scrawled words and then scraped off the stickers and brushed on fresh paint. Within 10 minutes, the stalwarts of Baltimore’s graffiti removal program had largely erased the evidence of vandalism, and moved on to the next job.

These days, the pair has no shortage of work in a city where graffiti mushroomed during the Covid-19 pandemic, scarring some neighborhoods that until that point had largely escaped widespread damage from spray-paint cans.

“For the last two or three years, it’s gotten worse," said Clark who, like Ford, has been tackling graffiti citywide for more than two decades as a laborer for the Baltimore City Department of Public Works. “We don’t want our city looking like that."

An age-old problem, graffiti tagging has proliferated in cities nationwide, fueled by factors such as pandemic-era service cuts, empty streets and a lack of accountability, officials say. Now cities including Baltimore, Seattle and New York are scrambling to get a grip on the problem—and reverse a trend that some property owners say threatens their investments.

The sense of disorder, hassle factor and cleanup costs can drive business owners to the brink, especially if tagging keeps happening, said Jennifer Vey, an urban policy expert at the Greater Baltimore Committee, a regional business group. “At some point, when do all these things add up to somebody saying it’s just not worth it?" she said.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott, a Democrat, has called for a ramped-up graffiti removal program as part of his downtown revitalization plan. Crews gave priority to such work around the city during a 90-day blitz last spring. The city removes graffiti from public property and private residences at no cost; commercial properties aren’t eligible.

The push for graffiti removal comes as cities across the U.S. are trying to bring crowds back to downtowns that emptied out at the start of the pandemic. Central-business districts still often resemble ghost towns with so many people working from home at least part-time.

The city of Dayton, Ohio, last year removed nearly 16,000 graffiti tags, an 80% jump from 2019, city figures show. (“Tag" is the term for uncomplicated forms of graffiti such as simple writing.) This year’s total was nearly 12,000 as of last month. Brian Dahm, the city’s street maintenance manager, said he feels urgency to eradicate graffiti quickly.

“If you leave a tag up for a certain period of time, it’s going to attract someone else to come along and compete or tag beside it. That can snowball out of control and you have an appearance of a city that is unkept, vacant, unsightly," he said.

Since last year, the Downtown Dayton Partnership business group has wrapped 30 utility boxes in art—in part to deter graffiti—under a program that pays winning entrants $500 apiece. The group says its staff also cleans graffiti downtown.

In Seattle, graffiti removal requests soared 40% in 2021, city figures show, and rose higher in 2022, to around 22,000. This year’s trend is similar to last year’s. A city spokeswoman cited, among other factors, the elimination of a graffiti-detective position. Mayor Bruce Harrell, elected in a nonpartisan contest in 2021, launched a new graffiti-removal initiative last year.

In New York City, the Department of Sanitation has aggressively worked through a backlog of graffiti removal cases since taking over the program from another agency in April, a spokesman said. More than 6,400 properties have been cleaned so far this year, up from about 3,800 last year, he said.

Brad Waldrop, a commercial real-estate broker and developer in St. Louis, said graffiti downtown is the worst he has seen since he began investing there more than 20 years ago.

“We’ve been tagged multiple times on multiple properties," he said, adding that the proliferation makes it harder to reverse a yearslong slide in property values. “It gives the feeling of chaos and crime."

The city said it had faced staffing shortfalls, but vacancies in its graffiti-removal program were filled earlier this year.

In Baltimore, landlord John DeMirjian said tagging is “out of control" in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood where he has amassed a portfolio of small apartment buildings over the past 30 years. “It’s like seeing a pimple on your face," he said. “You’re like, ugh, it’s there. It wasn’t there yesterday."

DeMirjian said perpetrators should pay a price. But the police department’s policy on minor offenses such as graffiti stresses verbal warnings and counseling. It says officers can issue citations given aggravating circumstances, but arrests should rarely occur.

The city halted graffiti-removal work during the first year of the pandemic to focus on trash and recycling collection, but Clark, the veteran public-works employee, noted that taggers didn’t stop.

“They tagged everything," he said. In May 2021, Clark and Ford were assigned to again solve the problem. A second two-person team got on board last year, but that is still only half the city’s prepandemic complement, Clark said.

Taggers hit some spots repeatedly, including a wall along Interstate 83.

On a recent morning, Clark and Ford painted over graffiti on several low walls at a disused playground, rolling on a shade of beige named Sands of Time. Using a sandless blaster that shoots water mixed with an abrasive, they later zapped turquoise graffiti from a concrete wall, before moving on to the crosswalk sign near a school.

Last Thursday, Will Fagg arrived at his pizza shop in Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood to discover graffiti scrawled on his window, and on 20 or so nearby properties. He bought Krud Kutter at a hardware store and scraped the blue paint off his window.

“I feel like graffiti is part of city life," he said. “This particular incident was pretty intense. So many places and so…in your face."

Coming as the business district tries to rebound from the pandemic, the serial vandalism angered Zachary Blanchard, president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. “It just feels like it’s just piling on to a problem," he said.

Write to Scott Calvert at scott.calvert@wsj.com

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