Article Features Eden Dabbs

Getting a Grip on Graffiti

Eden Dabbs is a communications consultant and an associate editor for Western City. She can be reached at

Graffiti is a challenge for many California cities. In addition to being an eyesore, it can negatively impact the quality of life in a community and affect people’s perceptions about safety.

California Penal Code section 594 defines the act of marking without the permis sion of the property owner as “vandalism” punishable by fines, incarceration and court-ordered restitution.

Graffiti has increased dramatically over the past several years in cities like Victorville, where 300,080 square feet of markings were eradicated in FY 2004-05, but the figure more than doubled the following year. In this city of 100,790 that covers 74 square miles, three full-time equivalent employees are dedicated to graffiti removal five days a week.

Graffiti incidents are rising in the City of Merced, too, up approximately 33 percent over last year. The city contracts with a local nonprofit agency to eliminate graffiti within the city limits at a cost of $120,000 for the current year.

In FY 2007-08, the Chino City Council approved a budget of $167,733 for its graffiti abatement program, which provides for one full-time and two part- time employees and all of the equipment necessary to address any graffiti issues.

Basic Abatement Program Elements

Many cities have adopted codes and ordi nances to deal with graffiti, which are then incorporated into comprehensive abatement programs typified by the City of Victorville’s “Three Es”: eradication, education and enforcement. The program elements work this way:

  • Color Matching. Ten stock paint colors are used to prevent a “patchwork” effect created by painting various colors on one tagged location. The use of color matching has made it difficult for graffiti vandals to repeatedly mark previ ously tagged areas because they are very hard to see.
  • School Outreach. The Anti-Graffiti Outreach Program provides education to elementary school children, emphasizing the nonproductive nature of graffiti vandalism, the damage that it does to personal property, and the fact that it is against the law and they can go to jail for it.
  • Law Enforcement Involvement. Graf fiti data are collected (location/cost/tag mark) and logged into a database program and provided to the Police Department, which in turn uses the information as evidence to apprehend suspected vandals. This information also assists in recovering graffiti removal costs in the form of restitution billing to taggers (or their parents if minors are involved) after conviction .
  • 24-hour Graffiti Hotline Service. The hotline allows for calls to be taken “live” during normal business hours. This aids in the quick identification of graffiti locations while allowing for positive interaction with the public about the city’s graffiti abatement pro gram. A message service is provided for after-hour graffiti reporting.
  • Ordinance Prohibiting Graffiti. Signs are posted in high-target areas throughout the city stating that graffiti is prohibited and that anyone convicted will be fined and incarcerated.

Unique and Innovative Approaches

In addition to all or most of these elements, some cities have created or adopted other features and programs to supplement the basic graffiti abatement efforts, including:

Adopt a Block/Wall. The cities of Woodland, Palmdale and Santa Barbara all rely on volunteers to monitor graffiti in their neighborhoods and clean up any tagging as it occurs with city-provided removal kits.

Computer-Based Paint Matching. The Town of Apple Valley employs a graffiti contractor who uses technology that makes repair virtually invisible. In Bakersfield, the graffiti removal crew carries a portable color photo spectro-meter on the truck to compute the color behind the graffiti, so they can match the color and mix the paint right in the field. When the paint is dry, it’s nearly impossible to see that any repainting was done, which is an additional frustration for the graffiti taggers.

Requiring Offenders to Satisfy Community Service. The City of Palmdale offers a community service program for adult graffiti offenders, who are able to satisfy their court-ordered community service requirement through the Public Works Department. In El Centro, a cooperative venture between the Police and Probation Departments uses probationers who are court ordered to do community service to perform the graffiti cover-up on weekends.

Reward Program. The City of Palmdale also has a reward program for any witness whose information leads to the arrest and conviction of a graffiti vandal. Once the case has cleared and a witness has made a formal inquiry, the reward and certificate of recognition are processed. If the witness is amenable to acknowledgment, a ceremony is held at the city council meeting where the mayor presents the check and certificate.

Using Plants and Paint. Vine-planting programs were implemented in Pico Rivera to cover popular wall sites for graffiti, and the background color of painted surfaces is changed to make them less attractive to vandals.

Public Information Campaigns. The City of Pico Rivera created a major public information campaign to relay its tough new anti-graffiti message to residents. The city uses the catchphrase “tag … you’re it. graffiti. it’s not a game anymore” to saturate the community with news about the campaign and consequences for convicted offenders. Through its newsletter and cable TV channel, brochures, posters, letters to students, neighborhood watch and classroom presentations, special events and the local media, the city made sure that the message about graffiti was clear and pervasive.

MOUs. The third phase and major success of Santa Barbara’s Graffiti Abatement Program is the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the city and the Union Pacific (UP) railroad. In 2006, UP’s police group met with the city’s Police and Public Works Departments, the city attorney and local residents. These stakeholders formed the Neighborhood Improvement Taskforce to abate graffiti, illegal dumping and drug use along the UP rail corridor within Santa Barbara. Under the MOU, UP reimburses the city for regular graffiti abatement in the railroad right-of-way. To date, the city’s graffiti crew has completed five graffiti abatement projects with UP.

Using Art and Young People. Santa Rosa is working on preventive strategies to reduce future occurrences of graffiti by incorporating murals and participation from young people in its neighborhoods. And the Merced Community Action Network is in the process of organizing a volunteer program that will use youth groups, churches and school groups to paint out graffiti on public property.

Tapping Into Redevelopment Agency Funds. The City of El Centro Redevelopment Agency embarked on an aggressive Graffiti Removal Program. Although the responsibility for graffiti cleanup rests with property owners, the agency funded this program to assist residents with the costs associated with graffiti removal. Initially, the program was limited to areas within the redevelopment project area due to regulations on agency funding. The city manager later approved the use of monies from the general fund to expand the program citywide.

Video Monitoring. The cities of Chino and Sacramento utilize video monitoring equipment for enforcement and deter rence. In what were previously considered problem graffiti areas in Chino, several motion-activated video cameras have been mounted in parks and other public areas where they serve as a deterrent to would-be vandals from dusk until dawn. Sacramento’s Information Technology staff recently built three remote wireless mobile surveillance units to monitor graffiti activity.

Theatre. The Sacramento Code Enforcement Department’s Anti-Graffiti Unit added a proactive Anti-Graffiti, Anti-Gang Theater Program staffed by college students from the Los Rios Community College District and high school students from Sacramento Unified School District. The theater group targets elementary and middle school students with a play titled “The Fall of X,” which creates a forum for discussion about inappropriate behavior and the negative consequences of that behavior versus making the right choices that have a positive impact on a person’s life.

Technology. Many cities use software to help monitor graffiti and identify taggers across jurisdictions. In addition, the Town of Apple Valley and the City of Manteca have dramatically improved their ability to deal with graffiti by automating their code enforcement efforts. Automated code enforcement, which is easy and inexpensive to implement, offers numerous benefits, including faster response to graffiti reports, more efficient use of staff time and better identification of graffiti trouble spots.

Both cities are using automated code enforcement to:

  • Automatically look up parcel ownership and easily identify the property owner responsible for cleaning up the graffiti;
  • Easily identify multiple cases at the same location so that staff can work with the property owner on an alternative solution; and
  • Map graffiti cases so that staff can identify problem areas, track eradication progress and see if specific graffiti types are moving from one location to another.

Manteca also:

  • Includes graffiti photos in violation notices so that the property owner, even if not local, can see the staff observation and determine the proper action; and
  • Operates a popular volunteer program that enlists senior citizens to re-inspect graffiti cases and report their observations to code enforcement staff.

Many other California cities are beginning to realize the benefits of automated code enforcement as well. The systems quickly prove their value by allowing staff to do less paperwork and spend more time in the field on other important community problems, while allowing city officials to handle growing code enforcement case- loads without adding staff. Taggers may be tricky, but technology is helping cities to get tough on them.


Sue Vannucci, CMC, City Clerk City of Woodland
300 First Street Woodland, CA 95695
(530) 661-5806
FAX: (530) 661-5813

Diana McKeen
Town of Apple Valley
Municipal Services Manager
14955 Dale Evans Parkway
Apple Valley, CA 92307
Phone: (760) 240-7521
FAX: (760) 247-0346

Kelly Long
Community Safety Supervisor
38306 9th Street East
Palmdale, CA 93550
Phone: (661) 267-5172
FAX: (661) 267-5554

Anthony Heisterberg
Code & Neighborhood Services
City of Moreno Valley
14177 Frederick Street
Moreno Valley, CA 9255
Phone: (951) 413-3340.
Phone: (951) 413-3340

Louie Rodriguez
Public Works Manager
City of Victorville
(760) 955-5206 

Bob Spencer
Senior Manager, Public Information
City of Pico Rivera
Phone: (562) 801-4322

Anthony J. Nisich, Director
City of Santa Barbara
Public Works Department
Phone: (805) 564-5378

Leonard F. Moty
Chief of Police
City of Redding
Phone: (530) 225-4211

Georgia Pedgrift
Graffiti Abatement Program Coordinator
City of Santa Rosa
(707) 543-3552

Mike Conway
Public Information Officer
City of Merced
678 W. 18th St
Merced, CA 95340
Phone: (209) 385-6232; (209) 564-0235
FAX: (209) 723-1780

Stacy Cox
Staff Assistant
City of El Centro
(760) 337-4544

Michelle Van Der Linden
Public Information Officer
City of Chino
13220 Central Avenue
Chino, CA 91710
Phone: (909) 591.9803

Noel Eusebio
City of Sacramento
Code Enforcement Department
Phone: (916) 808-3951
FAX: (916) 808-6514

Hans Faber
Landscape Maintenance Supervisor
City of Thousand Oaks
Phone: (805) 449-2499, ext. 383

Rex Osborn
City of Manteca
Phone: (209) 239-8441

Brenda Lopez
Town of Apple Valley
Phone: (760) 240-7560

This article appears in the October 2007 issue of Western City
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