Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Graffiti: A tale of two signs

By April Leigh and Tina Werner

Opinions about graffiti vary almost as much as the expression itself. It’s an art form to some and a nuisance for others. In the context of tagging along highways and bridges, graffiti poses many concerns for us.

Graffiti is illegal under Washington state law. It puts people in danger (those doing the tagging along a busy highway and our crews involved in the removal) and costs taxpayers thousands of dollars annually. It also takes away from other work we do to keep our transportation system in good working order like repairing potholes and guardrails.

We do our best to keep up with requests to remove graffiti, especially on directional signs and in areas that cause distractions for drivers. Unfortunately, our crews often report that a location is tagged again within days or even hours of graffiti removal.

Crews removing graffiti in the pedestrian/bicycle path above the Mount Baker tunnel in Seattle.

In February, graffiti was sprayed across two overhead directional signs on the off-ramp from southbound Interstate 5 to State Route 512 in Tacoma. The defaced signs posed a significant distraction for drivers and covered directions for traffic, so they had to be removed immediately.

These overhead signs on the southbound I-5 exit to SR 512 and South Tacoma Way had to be removed and replaced after they were tagged with graffiti.

These overhead signs are located along a very busy stretch of I-5 and have been repeatedly targeted. A temporary directional sign was moved to the roadside while maintenance crews started work on a fix. When all was said and done, both overhead signs had to be replaced and a catwalk removed from the sign structure to prevent future tagging.

Whoever vandalized the signs had to crawl across that catwalk to do it – endangering their life and the lives of everyone who passed underneath them.

Replacing signs – particularly overhead ones – is a timely and expensive task. In this case, the graffiti defaced the entirety of the directional signs, and they were not able to be salvaged.

How much does something like this cost? Our team is still calculating the final bill, but replacing both signs is estimated to be between $40,000 and $50,000. That includes labor, equipment and materials.

Crews use large trucks equipped with hydraulic arms and buckets to replace the overhead sign on the ramp from southbound I-5 to SR 512 and South Tacoma Way.

The cost of graffiti

Graffiti removal projects like this are paid out of our maintenance and operations budget. Our crews prioritize critical maintenance activities (PDF 187KB) like catch basin cleaning, snow and ice removal, mowing for sightlines and other work. The more resources we spend on graffiti removal, the less we have for this other work.

In the past two years, our maintenance teams have spent $1.4 million on graffiti removal. In the next biennium, we expect to spend even more to address the growing issue.

Graffiti vandalism on the rise

We’ve seen an increase in graffiti vandalism along our state roads over the past few years. Newly completed bridges, overpasses, walls, and other structures are often hot spots for these crimes as they offer a fresh blank canvass for taggers. Active construction projects with new or closed sections of roads also attract activity because there is no traffic there at night.

A section of a new wall along SR 16 in Tacoma before and after graffiti removal.

Crews often have to use special equipment to access the vandalized areas – like trucks with lifts to reach high places that would otherwise be used to maintain, inspect or clean state bridges. Using equipment like this also requires traffic control or a lane closure during daylight hours. This is a huge challenge when we’re also trying to keep traffic moving.

What about designed safe-graffiti spaces?

Some people have shared that they’d like us to allow for portions of our highways and other facilities to be safe-expression spaces for graffiti artists. Safety plays a big role in this effort along with consistent monitoring of the spaces for vulgar or offensive language.

We are aware and have been evaluating the innovative artist in residence program and how it could help address safe-graffiti spaces. However, we are currently in the middle of legislative session where bills have been introduced on this topic and we are awaiting hearing what the results are.

How graffiti removal is prioritized

While graffiti is a crime and a law enforcement issue, the cleanup is our responsibility and we do so as often as we can. We prioritize removing graffiti with vulgar or obscene phrases. As we are not a law enforcement agency and don’t have enforcement authority, we partner with law enforcement, but they must catch someone in the act of tagging to be cited for vandalism. Given that much of the tagging happens at night, this is a huge challenge.

We aren’t funded to have or hire specific-graffiti removal teams. It takes time and planning to coordinate a cleanup site. We try to roll this work into other projects occurring in the same area to minimize disruptions to drivers, and work with neighboring cities and counties on prioritizing large sections that draw noticeable concern. You can report highway graffiti online too – and we share that directly with our crews to address as time and resources allow.

We’re often asked why we don’t use our traffic cameras to help law enforcement capture taggers in the act. Our traffic cameras only provide the most current snapshot image. We don’t record footage from them as that would require a significant investment to support storing video from more than 600 cameras statewide. Law enforcement must catch someone in the act of vandalism to potentially arrest a person on state property.

Crews removed graffiti from this I-5 sign near Marysville at 88th St NE.

Bottom line: There’s always been, and likely always will be graffiti. Along with law enforcement, we will do the best we can within our resources to try to keep up, but ultimately it’s up to those committing the crimes to stop putting themselves and others at risk.


Unknown said...

Why doesn't the state partner with local groups to paint murals in high-graffiti areas? A lot of taggers won't deface *art.* Seems like a simple solution that is being overlooked.

WSDOT said...

Thanks for your suggestion to work with local groups to take part in graffiti-safe expression spaces along state rights of way. As we mention in our blog, safety plays a big role in the effort to allow people onto our rights of way to perform daily maintenance and construction activities, especially standalone spots to tag a surface with graffiti. Under current law, graffiti is illegal and a form of vandalism. Graffiti poses great risk to those participating in the activities as well as live traffic blowing by at high rates of speed. Additionally, it would likely require daytime lane closures and disrupt the flow of traffic. Whenever we must take a lane for whatever reason, even for emergency safety repairs (i.e. pothole repairs), we have to balance those needs along with the demands of keeping people moving. Allowing graffiti-safe expression spaces would require monitoring of the spaces for vulgar and offensive language for removal, something our regional maintenance crews do based on available staff and resources. We are aware and have been evaluating how the agency's partnership with an artist in residence program could be utilized to allow people to participate in graffiti-safe expression spaces. However, we are currently in the middle of the state's legislative session where bills have been introduced on this topic and we are awaiting those results. Should something change, we will share about it.

EvanDH1989 said...

To summarize, “We can’t do more than we are, and there’s no apparent solution to this problem.”

Know what would have been nicer to hear? WSDOT outright condemning those who (like dogs urinating on every bush they see) spray-paint all over public property and create an eyesore for millions of law-abiding Washingtonians—many of whom (like me) are completely embarrassed to bring their out-of-town friends/family to places like Seattle because of how dirty and run down they’ve have been allowed to become.

I’m so tired of all the graffiti. I’m so frustrated that literally millions of tax dollars are wasted every year on its never-ending removal. And I’m so sick of this walking-on-egg-shells that our public agencies do when making public statements about problems like this. God forbid someone gets offended by the State saying “Graffitti’s not art. It’s a crime. And we’re sick of it too!”

Kendrick said...

Graffiti has definitely taken over the city of tacoma and other surrounding cities. I know that I have personally tried to reach out to city officials even to the state of Washington thru WsDot to try to become involved in helping in the removal of graffiti. Yet it seems that I have been ignored and it's always running into a dead End. I believe that this should be something. That should be monitored 24/7 and using paints that specializes in spray paint on sticking that can be removed with a simple power washing. You have a freeway that is being cluttered with graffiti that has taken years to be completed and in a matter of time is already covered in graffiti and trash along the freeways. It makes Tacoma look like a neglected and rundown city. I feel enough has not been getting done and the people of Tacoma deserves better.

WSDOT said...

Thank you for your comment. WSDOT is responsible for graffiti removal along state highways – and we don’t do graffiti removal on city or county rights of way. Our maintenance crews remove graffiti as time and resources allow and we prioritize removal of offensive or vulgar displays. As part of the Adopt-A-Highway program, people in Thurston and Pierce counties can sign up to volunteer to help with graffiti removal. We will supply the materials (i.e. paint, etc.). Please contact a coordinator near you if you are interested in participating. https://wsdot.wa.gov/business-wsdot/highway-signs/adopt-highway/adopt-highway-contacts

One thing to note – there are areas in Tacoma where it is unsafe for volunteers to go. As a result, some of the areas targeted for graffiti, especially along the I-5 corridor, are not available for adoption. Working in those locations must be performed by WSDOT maintenance staff or qualified contractors with specialized equipment and often requires daytime lane closures for us to do that work.

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