SF 2023 State of Graffiti Tagging

How SF is aiding businesses clean persistent graffiti
SF Examiner (Link, with maps and graphs)

A parklet, a storefront, a billboard.

Graffiti pops up across The City seemingly as fast as it’s removed.

The City launched a pilot program to help businesses clean up graffiti last November in a press conference that featured Mayor London Breed painting over graffiti scrawled over a vacant brewery in the Inner Sunset.

Less than a year later, graffiti still abounds in not only the Inner Sunset but other San Francisco neighborhoods as well.

The $2 million “courtesy graffiti abatement” program was funded for a second consecutive year in The City budget adopted by legislators and signed by Breed last month. It employs workers who will respond to businesses that report tagging on their buildings.

From its launch in November, the crew has tallied 582 “abatements,” which can include multiple tags on the same property. The new program applies only to businesses in commercial corridors, where graffiti has the highest visibility.

“Previously, that would have been 582 abatements that small businesses would have had to pay for, essentially punishing the victim. So from that (point of view), this is tremendous progress,” said Sharky Laguana, a former president of the Small Business Commission who advocated for The City to change its approach to graffiti enforcement.

The effort remains small in comparison to the issue at hand. In 2022, The City received nearly 79,000 graffiti complaints through its 311 system.

Graffiti complaints have risen every year since 2019, according to The City’s 311 data. This year, complaints are on pace to blow past last year’s total. (The 311 data consists only of reports of graffiti and is not necessarily an exact representation of the quantity of graffiti in San Francisco.)

It’s incumbent on businesses to opt into the courtesy abatement program. So far, 388 property owners or businesses have done so, while another 88 had applied as of last week, according to the Department of Public Works, which is overseeing the effort.

The City’s crew usually responds to an abatement request within three to four days, said DPW spokesperson Rachel Gordon. In certain cases, such as when the graffiti is difficult to reach, The City will contract out the work — which can take a couple of weeks.

For businesses, graffiti adds up to more than the cost of paint and a brush. There’s also the price of labor and general hassle, Laguna said. The threat of a fine is only the beginning.

“When a complaint is filed, there’s an inspection, research on where to issue the notice, a follow-up inspection, another notice/citation, possibly administrative hearings if there’s a dispute, and then, of course, the collection of fines,” Laguna said. “These are significant administrative expenses. This is why I started pushing for The City to just do the cleanup. It’s actually cheaper, quicker, and more efficient.”

City legislators may be hesitant to pour more funding into graffiti abatement. This year, they were forced to close a $780 million budget deficit. Barring a miracle, The City’s financial picture is not expected to significantly improve in the coming years, meaning money will remain tight.

Sean Ingram, who owns The Dark Horse Inn restaurant in The Excelsior, said the neighborhood gets tagged quite often. It can remain uncovered for weeks and — despite the city program — is usually cleaned by business and property owners, he said.

One popular corner is highly trafficked and near a bus stop.

“It’s graffitied every single day,” Ingram said.

“Basically every single day, we had to wipe graffiti off our buildings before we could open for business; that’s how bad it got,” Louie said.

One helpful response Louie discovered was to confront a graffiti artist and persuade them to paint a mural instead. This tactic resulted in the Chinatown-themed mural at Grant and Sacramento Streets in 2011, Louie said.

She also credited former District Attorney George Gascón for amping up enforcement against prolific taggers, which coincided with a drop in graffiti reports, the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2019.

Laguana said he believes the best strategy is a quick cleanup.

“Taggers are in and out so quickly that increasing law enforcement resources doesn’t meaningfully impact their behavior,” he said. “There’s been some big lawsuits against serial taggers, and the problem is worse than ever.”

As Louie found in Chinatown, diverting taggers’ artistic ambitions might prove fruitful.

“We might also benefit from some sort of public place where they could display their artistic talents and get recognition (which at the end of the day is what they want),” Laguana said. “We’ve had that at different moments in our history, but not really right now.”

San Francisco District Attorney Brooke Jenkins’ office did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

That businesses are responsible for cleaning up graffiti — and face fines if they don’t — “pisses me off,” Louie acknowledged. Still, she implored everyone to play their part.

“We already are in a state of ‘doom,’ and having all that graffiti out there doesn’t help the image” of The City, Louie said, pointing to national news teams descending on San Francisco ready to document that “we look like an urban war zone.”

The City also maintains there’s a benefit in removing graffiti “as quickly as possible to keep the tags from mushrooming,” Gordon wrote in an email to The Examiner.

“Our ultimate goal, of course, is to get to the place where graffiti vandals stop defacing private and public property – the tags stain our neighborhoods and are costly to clean up,” she said.