Friday, August 22, 2014

Tag! You’re it!

Tacoma talks about graffiti and art

 Weekly Volcano, Aug. 21, 2014

from left: David Schrodel, Lt. Leroy Standifer, Allyson Griffith, Traci Kelly

There was quite a lively discussion at the Old Post Office Wednesday night when the New Neighborhood Council sponsored a panel discussion on graffiti with representatives from a good number of community groups. On the panel were City Art Administrator Amy McBride; Judi Hyman, president of the Downtown Merchant’s Group; David Schrodel from Business Improvement Area Lt. Leroy Standifer from the Tacoma Police Department, and Allyson Griffith from the city’s Community Based Services. Moderating the discussion was Traci Kelly, chair of the Tacoma Arts Commission and representing the New Neighborhood Council.

Amy McBride. Photos by Gabi Clayton
Griffith talked about the city’s Rapid Removal Pilot program focusing on eradicating graffiti as quickly as possible, noting that the longer graffiti remains the more likely it is to invite more tagging. She said if your property gets hit by graffiti you should call the police non-emergency number, 798.4721.

Much of the discussion, both from panel members and from community participants, centered around the difference between graffiti and street art. McBride said the difference is graffiti is done without permission. She said street art has been an established art form since the early ’80s.

Famous artists such as Jean-Michael Basquait and Keith Haring started out as graffiti artists, and Banksy’s illegal street art became so famous that sections of walls he had painted on have been bought, removed from buildings and displayed in museums.

McBride said she would like to see opportunities for street artists to express themselves.

A number of community members also talked about wanting to provide legal and less destructive ways for street artists to express themselves. Both McBride and Kelly talked about the city’s mural program which secures legitimate walls for graffiti-style artists to work on them and provides training. Forty-four murals have been completed through the program over the past four years, and only a couple of them have been tagged. Although it was made clear by many on the panel and in the audience of approximately 40 citizens that tagging is a criminal act that is destructive and costly, one interesting thing that was pointed out is that taggers tend to respect the work of other street artists, which may account for the fact that so few of the city’s murals have been tagged.

When asked how big the graffiti problem is, Lt. Standifer said it is “out of control.” He said they have identified 44 taggers by their markers. None of them are affiliated with violent gangs, most are high school-aged males who are predominantly white, and they range across all economic classes.

Standifer also stressed the importance of quick removal, saying if it is not removed it sends the message that nobody cares. “It makes us look like a war zone. Graffiti’s artistic value is not an issue.”
One woman in the audience identifying herself as being an artist associated with the Spaceworks program asked for suggestions of positive steps that can be taken, and a number of people talked about the benefits of the mural program and Spaceworks. Several people expressed sadness and frustration that the graffiti garage on Broadway has now been closed to street artists by the owners, probably due to liability issues. Hyman said she has heard from people as far away as Los Angeles asking about the graffiti garage, and local merchants talked about how it was an attraction that brought people downtown who then explored other offerings there.

A representative from Washington Department of Transportation said they clean up graffiti from bridges and signs when it becomes a safety issue and said that racial slurs and obscenities take priority over other forms of tagging.

Hyman said there is now an app for reaching Tacoma First 311 for reporting graffiti or potholes or other non-emergency issues. More information is available at

Street art can be beautiful and exciting and can enhance the business and culture of the community. Tagging is illegal, often ugly, and can be harmful to business and culture. Often the line between the two can be hard to recognize.  Hopefully this New Neighborhood Council discussion will be a step toward finding ways to encourage the good and do away with the bad.

Photos: Graffiti talk.png - from left: David Schrodel, Lt. Leroy Standifer, Allyson Griffith, Traci Kelly
Amy.png – Amy McBride

Photos by Gabi Clayton

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