Originally written in the East Bay Express, December 11, 2012

With Oakland City Councilwoman Libby Schaaf declaring that, “I really get pissed off when people trash my city” and a visibly angry council President Larry Reid inviting fellow committee members to “come out to my district and talk to my constituents” if they failed to take quick action against graffiti, the council’s Public Works Committee sent a modified anti-graffiti ordinance today to the full council for consideration. After the City Attorney’s Office does some more minor tweaking, the council is expected to take up the new ordinance at its December 18 meeting.

Each of the four committee members — chairwoman Nancy Nadel, who authored the ordinance, Schaaf, Reid, and At-Large Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan — stressed that the intent of the ordinance was to target graffiti put on buildings without the owners’ consent, and was not intended to prevent authorized mural painting or other public art projects on Oakland streets.


The proposed ordinance, which would upgrade the penalties against property tagging as well as impose fines on property owners who fail to remove tagging on their buildings, is slightly modified from the original version that went before Public Works two weeks ago. Among the modifications made was a strengthening of the distinction between graffiti either authorized or not authorized by city officials or property owners and a reduction of fines from the $250-$1,000 range to the $150-$500 range for property owners who fail to remove graffiti.

A man calling himself Erase, who said he works for the City of Oakland, said that he has covered up to “5,000 tags” in the city over the past five years, estimating that there are “about 35 individuals,” taggers, who are doing the major work “destroying Oakland. I know of one individual alone, if he were caught and convicted, he would be responsible for $60,000 in damage.” Erase said he was in favor of public art, and did not know where he stood on the proposed ordinance.

Meanwhile, the changes in the ordinance were not enough to fully satisfy the handful of property owners or public art activists who spoke at the committee hearing. Desi W.O.M.E. of the Oakland-based Community Rejuvenation Project said that writing of the ordinance “still seems hasty to me,” and criticized the proposed new law for being “primarily punitive in nature. There are no preventative measures.” W.O.M.E. said his group wanted to see a mural diversion program attached to the measure rather than simply putting squares of new paint over graffiti. “That’s the only thing that has a chance of a long-term solution. Even if people are caught and fined, abatement is still a very much limited and imperfect strategy. We need to take a step back.”

Stesh Maleski, director of Oakland- and Venice, California-based I.C.U. Art, a twenty-year-old graffiti arts organization, also said that the proposed ordinance was being “rushed,” adding that it’s “going to hurt the fine arts murals” in the city.

Mary Maultsby-Jefferey, whose husband owns the Oakland Print and Copy Center at 27th Street and San Pablo Avenue, told committee members that while the new law was “1,000% better than the current ordinance, it’s still a joke; the penalties are not severe enough. For far too long, we’ve minimized this problem as pranks by mischievous youth.” Maultsby-Jefferey, who said she represented some thirty business owners in the San Pablo Corridor area, called tagging “vicious attacks on innocent victims.”

In a phone interview following the meeting, Maultsby-Jefferey disputed the contention that the ordinance was being rushed. She said that the genesis for the proposed anti-graffiti ordinance came early this year when she and the group of San Pablo Corridor merchants “got disgusted” with the amount of tagging being done to their buildings. “We’d been stopping graffiti artists and turning them over to the police, but the police were doing nothing about it,” she said. “They weren’t even aware that there was a state ordinance that covered the problem. Even if the police followed the state ordinance, we’d have relief.”

Maultsby-Jefferey said she and her group first met with Nadel about the problem in February of this year, and in April or May, after studying laws in other parts of California and the country, submitted the first draft of the ordinance that eventually became Nadel’s proposed law. Maultsby-Jefferey said that while she is not fully satisfied with the ordinance as currently written, she thinks that some of it can be amended by the Council at next week’s meeting, “or worked out in the implementation phase. We just don’t need to delay passage.”