Austin’s first step to combat graffiti

On Saturday Feb. 27, 2016, Abel Lopez painted over graffiti tagged by gangs in the Rundberg neighborhood in North Austin. Lopez is a community liaison for Restore Rundberg, a federally funded project which focuses on cleaning up that area of North Austin. (Reshma Kirpalani / American-Statesman)

On Saturday Feb. 27, 2016, Abel Lopez painted over graffiti tagged by gangs in the Rundberg neighborhood in North Austin. Lopez is a community liaison for Restore Rundberg, a federally funded project which focuses on cleaning up that area of North Austin. (Reshma Kirpalani / American-Statesman)

Is graffiti art or vandalism? That is a question that has long been debated.

According to a recent American-Statesman story by Nancy Flores about a group of artists and community organizers dedicated to restoring and preserving street art and graffiti murals, it appears that in Austin some types of graffiti indeed equate to art. (Disclosure: I’m among those who appreciate street art and see value of its presence in our communities.)

But with a recent proposal sponsored by District 7 council member Leslie Pool to tackle graffiti, it made me wonder if graffiti as art could change in this city.

The Austin City Council members approved the proposal on consent which left me with more questions.

The proposal asks that the City Manager review the city’s current graffiti abatement strategies, study nationwide best practices, and recommend changes to the city’s graffiti abatement strategies. In particular, the proposal aims to reduce is graffiti markings such as “initials, slogans or drawings that are written, spray painted or etched in any manner on property such as a sidewalk or wall of a building without consent of the owner.”

Sounds like a something anyone could, and perhaps should, stand behind. But what would happen to the plentiful pieces of Austin street art that have reached iconic status? Would the proposal make it more difficult for any such pieces to exist in the future? And why was this resolution even necessary? After all, city data collected shows that requests for graffiti abatement has dropped significantly from 3,124 in 2011 to 1,171 in 2015.  And, Pool’s district is not one of the districts with the highest request for graffiti clean-up in 2015, the top three districts are Districts 1, 3 and 9 — all located in Central Austin or east of Interstate 35.

Most importantly, how much would a comprehensive plan cost taxpayers? (This question “will be answered when the city manager comes back with recommendations,” officials told me.)

I reached out to Pool to get more details. Below are the answers she provided by email:

1.  Now that the resolution has been approved on consent by the council, what is the next step?

Next, the City Manager will bring back his recommendations and Council will decide how to act on those recommendations. We also plan on looking into whether there are resources in the budget that could be used to expand our the graffiti abatement services offered through the Health and Human Services Department, which have been at the same level for at least a decade.

2. What prompted the resolution?

We’ve heard a number of concerns from the community about graffiti vandalism – especially about graffiti that lingers for weeks. The response time is very important because from what our research shows, individuals who engage in graffiti are more likely to re-tag areas where the response is slow. Those individuals often stop tagging in areas where graffiti is removed rapidly. When we started looking into the city’s programs, we realized that the city had been using largely the same strategy at similar service levels for years, and that other large cities seemed to have more comprehensive programs that incorporated things like mural arts and other strategies, as well – so we wanted to ask the City Manager to research nationwide best practices to make sure our efforts are as effective as possible.

3. Why has doesn’t Austin have a comprehensive strategy in place?

The city’s massive growth has presented the city with a number of important challenges, and our city staff has done an excellent job working on those issues. In this case, the city has had a policy of graffiti abatement, and seemed to handle that in the traditional way, by removing graffiti where it exists. However, our city has been growing very rapidly, and I think it is time for us to revisit our current programs and examine what other big cities have done to fight graffiti vandalism.

4. How does the number of 2015 graffiti service requests compare to the three previous years?

Requests have declined thanks to better use of preventive measures and materials by our departments. This is certainly a key part of any graffiti abatement strategy, but it is not a silver bullet. The city still receives hundreds of abatement requests per month and our graffiti abatement team in the Austin Youth Development program has been at the same staffing levels for at least a decade, despite the large growth of our city. I would like to make sure that we’re implementing a program based on best practices that encourages positive forms of expression, prevents graffiti vandalism, removes it quickly when it occurs, and maintains quality of life for our communities.

5.  Could there be any overlap in the Austin Youth Development requests numbers with either Municipal Court and/or Parks & Rec requests?

Staff indicated that they coordinate who responds to what requests and route them to the appropriate department accordingly.

6.   How will the city determine what graffiti will not be allowed? As you know, some spontaneous graffiti has become iconic to the city.

This is really aimed at graffiti vandalism — unwanted graffiti that harms our community, such as foul language, lewd images, or things that have been sprayed on your property without your consent. The city already has a policy of removing this graffiti, it’s just that our massive growth has made it difficult to follow through, which has impacted our communities. We want to improve our ability to follow through on policy the city has already set.

7. What is the expected timeline — beyond the Feb. 17, 2017 recommendations deadline — to have a program in place?

My hope is that we’ll be able to organize and coordinate our existing programs and resources in a way that allows us to move forward quickly once the City Manager brings back his recommendations.

8.  The graffiti that would be targeted for removal is would be graffiti NOT approved by the property owner, correct?

Correct. We’re targeting unwanted vandalism, not art.

9.  How will the city address unsolicited ‘positive’ graffiti on city property?

City property belongs to the public — so use of public property in that way should be a community decision.

10. As you’ve pointed out, the number of requests for graffiti removal have decreased and the total square footage to be cleaned has also decreased, but the days to clean up has significantly increased. Is there an explanation to why it takes longer to clean less space than it did 5 years ago?

Regarding the decrease in the number of requests — much of the decrease appears to be due to the city’s increased use of preventive materials on the front end. This is very important to the overall strategy, but it is not a silver bullet…

Regarding the increase in the time spent cleaning — there are concerns that the data reporting several years ago was not as accurate as it could have been. Since that time, the data reporting has improved in accuracy, and we believe the current statistics are a more accurate portrayal of the time it takes to respond to requests. Currently, the average request takes, on average, about two weeks to abate.

Editor’s note: Updated correct districts — 1, 3 and 9 — with the highest clean-up requests.