Graffiti: Vandalism or crimes of art? Seattle mayor, ‘graffiti influencer’ have similar solutions

SEATTLE — Whether you view it as an outrageous sign of disorder and decay or legitimate counter-cultural artistic expression, Seattle has been covered in more graffiti, and more graffiti is being covered up — at a higher cost to taxpayers — than ever before.

“We’ve painted over the same locations up to seven times,” said a member of Seattle Public Utility’s Graffiti Ranger crew, while coating what appeared to be endless fresh graffiti sprayed on walls along Seattle’s Burke Gilman trail.

To combat the spray painting surge, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell has made unprecedented policies to control it.

“You just see prolific tagging everywhere and it doesn’t feel good,” Harrell said. “It doesn’t feel welcoming.”

According to the mayor’s office, since 2019, graffiti complaints to the city have grown over 50% recently, including nearly 20,000 reports of graffiti and tagging in 2021 alone. A weight-bearing pillar of Harrell’s new strategy is to recruit and even hire some graffiti artists to replace the constant cycle of abatement with new and better graffiti artwork in high-profile areas.

A graffiti artist who is recognized as a respected influencer in the underground culture agreed to talk to KIRO 7 in front of one of his productions in Fremont. He and his crew of eight veteran graffiti artists did not have the building owner’s permission to paint an elaborate Star Wars-themed scene — which appears to stretch for a half a city block. The crew also swept out trash and trimmed trees and foliage to improve sightlines for walkers and cyclists on the trail, who often stop to photograph the wall.

“Sire One,” like most others in the graffiti world, does not use his real name. He refers to himself as a “Graffiti Elder,” who has been spray painting colorful abstract statements since the early 1990s.

“The beginning of the old TV show ‘Welcome Back, Kotter’ and the subway train goes by at the beginning? Somebody got in the fame in the hip hop culture, off of that,” he said, referring to film shot of a graffiti-tagged Brooklyn train in 1976.

Sire One says a lot of the graffiti artists and name taggers use the spray canvas as a tool of resistance. “Some of the tagging that you see is saying, ‘Look, we’ve got a lot of problems going on right now.’”

He believes what appear to be colorful blossoms of urban vandalism are acts fertilized and grown from chaos and crime in the surrounding communities.

When asked why we’re seeing the sudden surge in graffiti, Sire One said it’s a confluence of disorder, and lack of enforcement. “It’s two things,” he said. “It’s the pandemic, and George Floyd getting killed.”

He explained as businesses were boarded up, police were under historic scrutiny, appeared to reduce enforcement of petty crimes, and even abandoned SPD’s East Precinct during the Capitol Hill Organized Protest in June of 2020. Sire One said a reduced police presence meant graffiti writers had more freedom and opportunity in a time of historic social upheaval.

“People also got comfortable with the notion of painting anything anywhere they wanted,” he said.

“They are redefining or defining the city in a way that I think is unwanted by most people,” said Harrell, who responded to a 50% increase in graffiti complaints with a new strategy including increased attention to cleanup or “buffing” as graffiti writers call it, and more enforcement from SPD, including stiffer criminal penalties for the most prolific offenders.

If you look straight down from the mayor’s office you’ll see brightly colored graffiti seven floors below, which in Harrell’s view is a painfully common theme. For graffiti writers, the tagger name is their brand. The name “Eager,” which can been seen on a rooftop has been seen in multiple locations all over Seattle.

When SPD officers arrested 36-year-old Casey Cain in December, they recognized the tagger name he’d allegedly painted thousands of times. The officers are heard commenting they’d seen the name “Eager” on walls and buildings, and in tattoos on Cain’s body. Graffiti abatement crews told KIRO 7 they buff out this name far more than any other. It’s seen wrapped around entire apartment buildings and even in traffic along Interstate 5.

Video evidence from SPD was taken as Cain and a graffiti partner, 37-year-old Jose Betancourth (who goes by “Satn”) walked out from behind an apartment building, where police found paint buckets and fresh graffiti. The pair allegedly caused $300,000 dollars in graffiti damage, painting giant letters on a new apartment building in Capitol Hill.

In body cam video, an SPD officer is overheard saying: “You know who that is? He’s the big fish, Eager! I told myself before the year ends I want to catch these two!”

Newly elected King County Prosecutor Leesa Manion and Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison collaborated for the first time on this graffiti case — adding up the damages, both suspects were charged with felonies.

“In many tagging cases, it’s a misdemeanor crime, but we know how prolific Eager has been,” said Manion. “It’s all I hear when I go to my walkabouts in communities, neighborhoods and small businesses,” said Davison. “This is not victimless. These are property owners and small businesses. These are individuals who are saying, ‘We are fed up,’ and frankly I am with them. The message is, ‘This is the limit.’ And you cannot do this type of activity and think that it’s harmless.”

“This is not an individual who’s committing a crime to meet basic needs,” added Manion. “This individual isn’t just creating an artistic expression. The person is prolific and is causing prolific harm to our community.”

“I’m not trying to criminalize young people that have artistic talent that are looking for a canvas,” Harrell said, adding that he’s trying to break the cycle of graffiti abatement and prosecution — by giving talented graffiti artists a platform: Fighting graffiti in high visibility places with “better art.”

“I will hire them if we can and find them canvasses,” he said.

Sire One says he is working to be part of that change, working with the city’s new initiative for Spatial Justice through Street Art. He is willing to serve as a mentor. He says graffiti writers take great risks already.

“When you look at graffiti in an unreachable place, you never conceive that the person had to paint with their left hand while holding onto a rail with the right hand, hanging the can upside down and then paint everything backwards and upside down so you can read it right side up and forward on your side.”

But Sire One said the biggest risk could be asking graffiti writers to be part of a cultural change — to take graffiti out of the shadows, and work with the city to create permanent paintings in public spaces, instead of covering up endless cycles of crime in more gray paint.

“If you start putting new programs into place, saying, ‘Look, this is some really good art,’ ideally, more people say, ‘What can I do more than (just paint) my name, let me try to get some messages out.’”

The Washington State Department of Transportation told KIRO 7 it would not likely be a major part of the Mayor’s graffiti-replacement plan. Spokesman James Poling said the agency spent $2,044,000 in graffiti abatement since 2020, adding that crews used 600 gallons of gray paint and spent more than $100,000 buffing over graffiti in the I-5 corridor though downtown Seattle in September of 2022, only to see the graffiti return within days.

“The I-90/Mt. Baker Tunnel is one of our most challenging areas in addressing graffiti in the metro,” said Poling. “Tunnel crews were able to remove most of the graffiti at this location this past fall, only for it to immediately tagged within 24-48 hours. Tunnels are particularly difficult because they require specialized paint, which allows light to reflect more efficiently within the tunnel and provide safer visibility for travelers. Graffiti removes this reflectivity, and the special paint requires additional work/closures.”

“Generally speaking,” Poling said, “we have had two significant graffiti removal projects in the downtown Seattle corridor since New Year’s. One was graffiti removed during Mercer St. ramp closures during weekend 520 megaproject work. These locations were immediately tagged again within 24 hours. The second was a multi-day graffiti removal along I-5 at and near the convention center. Within 48 hours, this location had more than 100 square feet re-tagged.”

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