One man's art is another man's crime

Nobody agrees about much of anything where graffiti is concerned.

Whatever your personal feelings, whether you think graffiti is an artform, a public nuisance or a criminal offense, graffiti-in its many spellings and with its ubiquitous ugliness (or beauty)-is something we will be living with for quite a while yet in urban America, and increasingly in rural America, too.

Some Seattle neighborhoods are harder hit than others. But the problem (or opportunity for expression) is keeping two Seattle firms busy removing what some folks, predominantly the owners of the buildings affected, see as visual litter, and others, particularly those self-described "writers," see as yet another form of public art, underground division.

Grafitti Busters, located out near University Village, is keeping three employees working every day, and sometimes into the night.

"We are busy nonstop every day," Corry Bakker, the coordinator for Grafitti Busters, said the other day.

Bakker said his company does work all over the city, including Magnolia, Queen Anne and Beacon Hill.

"Ninety-nine percent of our clients are businesses," Bakker said. "And we also do a lot of work in parks."

Bakker's is one of two companies ungraffiti'ing buildings almost as quickly as "taggers" or "writers" can "graph" them up.

Laurie Rasmussen, the owner of Good Bye Grafitti located in Beacon Hill, said she and her staff of five have been staying very busy throughout the entire three years she's been in business. Rasmussen said her staff works citywide cleaning off graffiti, but that the areas that seem to her the hardest hit are not Magnolia, Queen Anne or her home turf, but Belltown, Capitol Hill and the University District.

"There is graffiti in Queen Anne, but there is more graffiti in other neighborhoods," Rasmussen said. "In Queen Anne [especially] it is less frequent. On average we get a better response from property owners in that neighborhood. I'm not sure why. Maybe they are more interested in how their buildings look and they want to keep it that way. There seems to be more investment in the community there."

Brett Stav, a senior public relations specialist for the city of Seattle's public-utilities division (SPU), would probably caution business owners in any urban neighborhood about getting their hopes up too high. He doesn't necessarily feel the problem is waning anywhere.

"It is cyclical," Stav said. "We see it get better, and then when school gets out it is much busier again. We remove graffiti from public areas. We also provide free paint and other materials to property owners."

And who does most of the graffiti that city residents see? Is it rampaging criminal gangs, or is Stav on to something when he talks about summertime being graffiti prime time?

"These are kids who want recognition," Rasmussen said. "Kids who tend not to have had success in traditional ways, in academics, arts or athletics, but they still have that need [for recognition]."

When asked if she felt sorry for these (mostly) young folks defacing public property, Rasmussen sounded surprisingly empathetic.

"It's not sympathy, it's understanding somebody. Yes, they are vandalizing somebody's property. Yes, that is wrong, even if their tag is beautiful," Rasmussen said.

Beautiful? Bakker agreed: "Some of the stuff we remove... it's a shame... how beautiful it is," he said. "Some of these guys do good work. You couldn't do nearly what they do. Ninety percent of it is crap, just a bunch of junk, but 10 percent of it is actually art."

Many of the regular practitioners of graffiti as an art in Seattle would be gratified, but not surprised, by Bakker and Rasmussen's grudging appreciation of what they do.

For a look at what practitioners themselves see as the cream of the crop of local work, go to, a Web site where photos of local graffiti are displayed. There, too, local "artists" express feelings similar to those of Duk, an area grapher who e-mailed the site to announce his return recently from precincts east.

"I just got back in graphing after a year and a half hiatus. I was forced to move to Montana but after I ran out of s--- to graph out there I came back. Keep doing your thing, mang, and f--- the haters. They're probably not up anyway."

That's one of Duk's less profane comments cohabiting the abovementioned site with color snaps of the "work."

The use of the word "hiatus" might tip off the more discerning that at least some of these kids are not gun-crazed dopeheads out to destroy public property.

But the graph world is yet another American subculture that hasn't really yielded most of its secrets to the "straight" world at large-which includes middle-aged journalists and business owners who arrive one morning and discover their building has been turned into a stucco or brick canvas.

And, as in most endeavors where self-expression is at a premium, most of the "work" isn't art anyway.

And much of it doesn't try to be.

"It's mostly gangs of taggers that need to get their names out there," Bakker said.

Both Rassmussen and Bakker agree that an overwhelming percentage of the graffiti their companies remove has been put their by tagger gangs, not gangbangers.

"Before I started this business, I did some informational interviews with other graffiti-removal companies," Rasmussen recalled. "One guy in Minneapolis said he had been accosted [by gangbangers upset with him for removing their 'signs']. But if I ever even talked to a tagger, I didn't know they were taggers. They do their crimes in the dark."

"In general we don't know who they are, although when we were cleaning up in some state parks we have had kids come up to us and use harsh language," Bakker said.

If there is danger involved in graphing, Rasmussen sees it as mostly on the side of the kids doing the scrawling.

"The surprise is the risk some of these kids take to get their tag up," she remarked. "You'll see it on both sides of signage on a freeway. Freestanding signage. Or on the sides of buildings too low to tag from the ground and too high to get even standing on somebody's shoulders. I wonder sometimes how they do it."

Since even those involved with removing graffiti seem rather vague about who is doing the scrawling-or work (take your pick)-what should you look for if you've been victimized?

"They don't really have a profile," Stav said. "We have to say it is typically a young male with baggy clothing [to hold and hide the spray cans], wearing clothing like hooded sweatshirts.

"A lot of these people don't have an identity," she added. "Typically we don't see it as a gang thing. These are mostly typical suburban kids caught up in this."

Authorities in general are anti-graffiti, although neither state Sen. Jean Kohl-Welles nor the Seattle Police Department returned calls from this reporter to explain the specifics of their respective official positions.

But if you are a business owner or neighborhood activist under an onslaught, or a trickle, of graffiti, there are things you can do.

SPU offers free paint and free money, grants up to $1,000, to remove graffiti. To find out more, call 386-9746. There is also a graffiti-removal line at 684-7587. The Seattle police also maintain a hotline for reporting graffiti (or solvent and illegal chemical dumping): 625-5011.

If you are a private business or homeowner who wants help, you can call Grafitti Busters at 425-637-1829, or Good Bye Grafitti at 206-720-4777.

But before you call anybody, take a good look. Is it art, a crime, a mess? Or all three?

Dennis Wilken is a freelance writer living in Queen Anne. He can be reached by email at[[In-content Ad]]