Tierrabyte: Blight or Beauty, Graffiti Is Widespread in San Antonio

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Graffiti covers the base of large Big Tex Grain Co. silos. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Graffiti covers the base of large Big Tex Grain Co. silos.

San Antonio residents made nearly 5,000 calls to the City's 311 line related to graffiti in 2016, an analysis by the Rivard Report shows using data from the City's 311 City Services Department.

Residents called to report sightings of graffiti or stickers on public and private property– including appearances on traffic signs, poles, in parks, dumpsters, or other locations. City workers eliminated graffiti in 59,587 spots across San Antonio that year.

The 2016 data is some of the most recent from the city department that deals with requests for everything from dead animal removal to pothole repairs.

“Like any large city, graffiti is a pretty big problem," said Michael Shannon, director of the City of San Antonio's Development Services Department. "We get all shapes and sizes [of graffiti]. ... We also have tags from individual taggers, and certainly there’s some gang-related tagging.”

The City's annual budget for the abatement of graffiti is $1.4 million, two thirds of which pays for a staff of 19 that has grown from a staff of two in 2012, Shannon said. Each year, the Development Services Department expects to erase around 50,000 instances of graffiti, he said.

The map below shows the locations of graffiti-related calls made to San Antonio's 311 City Services Department in 2016. Click to zoom in on a particular location.

While San Antonio has taken a tougher stance on graffiti, viewing it as an eyesore and sign of blight, other U.S. cities have embraced some forms of graffiti as street art capable of spurring economic development.

Projects like Open Walls Baltimore and Wynwood Walls in Miami designate certain neighborhoods as official exhibition spaces for street art, hoping to revitalize neighborhoods by increasing foot traffic from people wanting to view the art.

In 2013, the City of Los Angeles passed a murals ordinance making street art legal in the city if the artist pays for a permit, obtains permission from the owner of the location, and makes a plan for the mural publicly accessible.

But while some residents and business owners may see murals as a positive form of street art, tagging and other forms of graffiti are considered an illegal nuisance.

“That’s something we’ve been monitoring and watching," Shannon said of the graffiti programs in other cities. "We’re always looking for new ways to combat this [graffiti problem]. But we do know that there’s some people that just want a place to put up some art."

San Antonio's Tricentennial festivities highlight existing and new murals in the city, and the City of San Antonio Department for Culture and Creative Development posts an annual call for public art qualifications that includes muralists.

Right now, the City's graffiti programs largely focus on abatement. The Development Services Department hosts volunteer graffiti abatement events, including an "adopt-a-dumpster" program, and "mini-graffiti-wipeouts" where 10 or more volunteers gather to eliminate graffiti in a targeted area.

Graffiti does not appear to be waning in San Antonio, Shannon said. The total number graffiti sites that have been erased by City crews grew from more than 16,000 in 2013 to more than 52,000 in 2017. So far this year, Shannon's team has resolved 26,043 graffiti cases, putting it on track to reach at least 50,000 cases by December.

"It’d be nice to say that there’s a trend that there’s less, but we haven’t seen that even though we’re fighting really hard," Shannon said.

Someone found in possession of graffiti implements such spray paint, ink, chalk, or dye can be fined between $200 and $500 for a first offense. A minimum fine of $400 can be assessed for subsequent offenses, according to Sec. 21-282 of the City of San Antonio's Municipal Code.

"The graffiti that we’re really combatting is not the artists," Shannon said. "The real challenge is [abating] the taggers that want to do something that’s against the law. … They get a rush from that. … That’s the biggest problem."

Can graffiti be art? See what San Antonio residents have to say on our Facebook poll.

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