The City Auditor's office is poised to release a three-month study analyzing Seattle's graffiti problem, as first reported. The study—which was commissioned by City Council Members Tim Burgess and Tom Rasmussen—is set to be released later this month but a draft copy was obtained by The Stranger (draft .pdf here), and street artists are already calling bullshit on its findings.

  • karl_addison via Flickr
The report includes a street count of graffiti found in four areas—two in Capitol Hill, downtown, and First Hill. Here's what has local street artists (and appreciators) pissed: while city officials found 556 examples of graffiti during their street count, they discovered “no instances of what could be called artistic tagging.” Street art is defined in the report as “colorful or complex… masterpieces.”

"It's ridiculous," says street artist Scratchmaster Joe. "Even if you call art subjective, even if you hate all graffiti, not finding one instance of art takes the credibility right out of their report."

Groups like Seattle Streetart are devoted to capturing the best of the city’s fleeting graffiti. The group boasts over 35,000 images of street art uploaded by 1,800 members. Clearly, a large number of people in the city appreciate graffiti's artistic value.

And then there are folks like Neighbors Working Together for a Clean and Safe Queen Anne, who've canvassed their neighborhood over the last six weeks with signs encouraging residents to call 9-1-1 if they spot “any suspicious looking graffiti-related activity.”

“Graffiti has been identified as a problem by many residents and business owners,” says Rasmussen, explaining the need for the report. “What I wanted to know—in a nutshell—was how big of a problem graffiti is, what our procedures for handling it are, and how those can be improved.”

Here's what the report found: Out of the 900 people surveyed about graffiti by the city auditor, only 40 percent called it a “medium to very big problem.”

The report also found that stickers, which aren’t officially considered graffiti, are nonetheless the most prevalent type of tagging in Seattle; the day-long street sweep of graffiti recorded that 40 percent of all tags were stickers. And contrary to what you hear from the property owners and businesspeople who are lobbying the council to get tougher on graffiti, the auditor’s report states that public property—like streets signs and utility poles—is twice as likely to be tagged as private property.

The city auditor’s report makes nine recommendations for updating how the city handles graffiti, a few of which include adding stickers as a subcategory, making graffiti artists subject to higher rates of restitution, acquiring a dedicated graffiti cop to patrol the streets, and creating diversion programs for offenders.

But graffiti artists say these efforts won’t accomplish much. “I already thought stickers were illegal,” says one artist who requested his name not be used. “What good is one cop going to do? And what are they going to divert me to, soccer?”

The graffiti artists I spoke with all echoed the same sentiment: The city can't stop graffiti. The next best thing is to work to make it better. They want more public art walls. "If people have the time and opportunity to practice, the graffiti you see on the streets is going evolve," says Scratchmaster Joe. "You'll see more well-planned pieces."

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This is street art
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  • This is street art
Art walls aren't anything new—many businesses in Belltown and other areas of the city already embrace them—but the City Auditor's report dismisses them as ineffective. Scratchmaster Joe says that's a mistake—art walls won't stop graffiti but they do prevent bad graffiti from happening. "It worked with the Georgetown graffiti wall," he says, and it’s worked in other places around the city, such as the Monique Lofts on Capitol Hill. Residents from the condo building approached Scratchmaster Joe and his partner Nko—who run a public art company called Handsome Murals—to paint the side of their building nearly two years ago. “Our wall was tagged weekly,” says condo owner Luke Wilson. “We spent nearly every Saturday painting over it to avoid fines from the city. All we were doing was creating a blank canvas for new crappy tags. One day it occurred to me, ‘Fight art with art.’”

The condo board got funding from two city grants to pay for a giant, colorful, crystal-like mural and since then, says Wilson, “I don’t think it’s been tagged since. I can’t begin to calculate the hours and money we’ve saved by doing this. Hopefully we’ve paved the way for other people to consider similar projects.”

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