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From anti-graffiti to anti-tag: Richmond considering new graffiti ordinance

on October 24, 2011

Last October a group of student artists from Gompers High School pooled their money to buy paint and spent two weeks splashing vibrant blues and greens on the brick wall of an industrial building off 8th Street, composing a colorful jungle with bouncing animals and bubble letters.

While they worked, a few miles away, near the railroads and I-580, hurried graffiti popped up on the walls of deserted factory plants.

One is an intricate mural, the other is a crude form of expression. But under the current city code, both of them fall under the same category, and both must be removed.

Now the city is trying to change the policy by drawing, for the first time, a distinction between graffiti art and tagging.

The issue came to the fore last fall when the students were forced to paint over their own masterpiece, which Richmond Code Enforcement determined violated the city’s Graffiti Ordinance. The ordinance states that all unauthorized spraying of paint, or marking of ink, chalk, dye, or other substance should be removed.

The Gompers student artists, their teachers and the American Civil Liberties Union started to advocate for the right to create urban art. They have had about 20 meetings over the last 10 months with Richmond city artists, council members and police. In July, the students repainted the mural with $1,000 from the city, and Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said the city had learned from its “mistakes.”

The “mistakes” also triggered a policy change: a new ordinance that targets tagging, rather than prohibiting “graffiti” as a whole, which was first read at Tuesday’s council meeting.

“We try to come to a way to address the challenge of encouraging art while discouraging vandalism,” said City Attorney Randy Riddle.

The new draft ordinance gives definitions of “mural,” “piece,” “sign,” “throw-up,” and “tag.” Only tags, “a single-color stylistic signature or individual mark,” are to be removed under the new code.

“The old ordinance is unconstitutional,” said ACLU attorney and Richmond Art Commissioner Phillip Mehas. “Freedom of artwork is equal to freedom of speech. They are protected by the First Amendment.”

The City Council, though, was not fully confident in the new ordinance. The discussion Tuesday night focused mainly on two concerns: whether tags can be in more than one color, and whether the neighborhood has any say in determining graffiti in the community.

Mayor McLaughlin participated in drafting the new ordinance and is a firm supporter. She said government could never censor art, and that censorship of any kind reminds her of the “Soviet Union and Hitler.”

Council member Jovanka Beckles said tagging could be in two colors, and suggested the City Attorney include this concern in the ordinance.

Mehas said two-color tags are unlikely: “If it’s multi-color tag, then I would like to see a picture of it. Taggers don’t go out with two colors. They go out at night, spray something and they go away.”

Scott Dickey, chief deputy of the City Attorney, also said that he personally has never seen tags in more than one color.

Dickey said some tags in the city were connected with gang violence. Gangs mark their “territories” with scrawls, usually abrupt and in one color.

Mayor McLaughlin also addressed this type of gang markers, calling it “what the anti-tag is all about.”

Council members Corky Booze and Tom Butt expressed more concern about the community’s voice in determining a neighborhood’s landscape.

Booze questioned why homeowners and taxpayers have no say over what is painted on their neighbors’ walls, and suggested the design review board check graffiti designs before they are painted.

Mehas said Booze and others who suggested a design review, “did not quite understand what the First Amendment is.”

The new ordinance does not mean graffiti artists are free to consider the community as their canvas. Any artists who are to paint on public or private properties should either get permission from the property owner, or go through the public artwork process in Richmond, Mehas said. Under the new ordinance, murals like the Gompers students’ work, which was permitted by the property owner, would not be removed even if the community complains.

But taggers seldom vandalize murals. The city of San Francisco, according to its Arts Commission, spends $22 million every year cleaning up tagging, has an innovative solution to abate the problem: spending $5 million annually sponsoring urban artists to create large-scale, full-wall murals. Because murals are considered sacred, taggers always leave them alone.

But Richmond, which is struggling with current budget cuts and has a $30,000 annual fund for graffiti abatement, is unlikely to spend millions supporting artwork.

With only Mayor McLaughlin and Council member Jeff Ritterman’s full support, the new ordinance was held until next month to be discussed again. Mehas said he would definitely go to next month’s council meeting arguing for the freedom of urban artists.

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