Inside Seven
Current Issue: September 2014
Lanes have to be shutdown by maintenance crews to clear graffiti.

Graffiti: Art or Nuisance?
by  Patrick Chandler
Issue Date: 01/2010

Caltrans efforts to combat graffiti bandits is a never-ending battle to stop vandalism.

Graffiti has been around long before any freeways were built. Graffiti can be been found in ancient cave dwellings, pyramid stones in Egypt (not referring to the hieroglyphics), and even on ancient ruins in Greece and Rome. In this case, graffiti can be found almost anywhere, on any freeway in Los Angeles.

Unfortunately, this form of what some may call art costs Caltrans millions of dollars to prevent and abate, burdens maintenance road crews, is a nuisance, and damages the landscape of California’s highways and freeways, especially in Los Angeles.

“Graffiti is kind of like trash. It is not part of the usual freeway wear and tear,” said Deputy Director of Maintenance Dan Freeman. “We hire people to cover up or clear graffiti but it takes them away from other duties that Caltrans road crews need to accomplish such as improving the condition of landscape, irrigation systems, and trees.”

Taggers have sprayed or “thrown up” their “bombs” or “pieces” on freeway overcrossings, soundwalls, signals and lighting, pedestrian walkways, freeway and highway signs, retaining walls, and other portions of Caltrans transportation facilities. Many taggers are so daring that they have climbed over fences on overpasses to tag freeway signs or the side of a bridge.

Strategies to Combat Tagging

Caltrans makes every reasonable attempt to eradicate graffiti within 10 days of a request. To clear graffiti effectively and safely, crews occasionally have to rent equipment and shut down freeway lanes. Road crews try to build a rapport with the local residents and businesses so that they understand what it takes to remove graffiti and how quickly vandals deface freeways.

According to Graffiti Program Coordinator Vincent Moreno, Caltrans works with law enforcement to capture taggers and receive restitution for damaged property. From 2007 to 2008 law enforcement agencies requested damaged estimates from District 7 for 61 tagger court cases. From 2008 to 2009, local law enforcement requested 77 estimates. Most graffiti cases involved vandalism of property in the Los Angeles area. However, the courts have levied $62,000 in restitution fines in Caltrans favor since July 2009.

“Sometimes my crew would cover up graffiti on a pedestrian overpass on the Pomona Freeway and later that day, the same tags would reappear in the same location,” said former Road Crew Worker Peter Jones, speaking about the tenaciousness of some taggers. “After completing our tasks and feeling proud of what we had done, it was really disappointing to see someone so immediately vandalize the structure.”

The scenario Jones describes is all too common. To make things worse residents often to call Caltrans complaining that the road crews had done nothing.

Crews have also been hampered by furloughs, lack of funds, and decreased staffing. The furloughs have prohibited crews from working during non-peak (safer) hours on weekends. A graffiti crew can cost as much as $1,100 per hour.

“Law enforcement officials have found that graffiti is more than just a delinquent act by juveniles, it is a criminal act that is being perpetrating by adults,” said South Region Maintenance Manager Christine Anderson. “The courts and law enforcement agencies have found that by going after taggers they can also reduce crime.”

The costs to fight tagging is staggering, especially when much of what has been covered up reappears shortly thereafter. The battle against taggers is a long one, but it is a battle that will require more than just Caltrans and law enforcement.

Taggers vandalized a mural on the Golden State Freeway (I-5). Graffiti at the US 101 and I-110 Interchange. Graffiti covering up a mural. Crews attempt to clear graffiti from a mural.