Graffiti demystified @ West Seattle Crime Prevention Council

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

He’s one of a kind.

Det. Christopher Young, the Seattle Police Department‘s lone graffiti detective, made a guest appearance at last night’s West Seattle Crime Prevention Council meeting, debunking graffiti myths and sharing case histories with more than two dozen people, who identified themselves as being from all over the peninsula, plus White Center. (The detective, for his part, said he’s a former West Seattleite.)

He began with the “top 4 graffiti myths.”

*”It’s all gang-related.”
Only about 1 percent is, he said.

*”It’s mostly done by kids.”
Wrong – about three-fourths of graffiti is by adults.

*”It’s all about the art.”
Wrong; he characterized it as thrill-seeking and ego-feeding behavior, for adrenaline rushes and attention. And it’s an addictive subculture, he said.

*“If you give them a legal place to paint, they won’t do it illegally.”
Wrong – that doesn’t speak to the motivation mentioned in myth #3.

And that motivation presents a challenge for enforcement, Det. Young noted in response to a question about tags on elevated freeway signs, high up on slopes, buildings, and walls, etc. – the vandals are willing to risk their life to do it, but “we’re not willing to risk our lives [in that way] to catch them.”

What’s actually the penalty for graffiti vandalism? he was asked. “If the officer arrests the person, they’ll spend the night in jail – if it’s a first offense, that’s all the jail time they’ll do,” plus 100 to 200 hours of community service, he replied. Is that graffiti-cleaning community service? “My understanding is that’s one of the things they do.”

Wondering how the city’s one-and-only graffiti detective spends his time?

The list on his PowerPoint slide went something like this:

*Reads all graffiti reports
*List suspect tag as an alias
*Follow up on solvable cases
*Consider jail interview for in-custody cases
*Consider seeking/executing search warrants on phones and cameras

Seeking photos from a suspect’s cell phone is because “the whole point of doing it now is to get it online” – so the vandals take and post the photos.

The process for that can be cumbersome, but, he said, can pay off. A lot of his job involves working as an analyst – with documentation and tracking, from research to combing through websites. And one of the most important things he does, in Det. Young’s view, is putting together and issuing “bulletins,” about suspected vandals that other officers can keep an eye out for.

He also has gathered intelligence using “covert cameras” at tagging hot spots – and some of those images, along with images from scenes where he has executed search warrants, comprised a presentation he asked those in attendance not to photograph or videotape.

One man in his 20s who was caught “with paint on his fingers matching paint on the wall” along Aurora gave a “de facto confession,” Det. Young said, by going with him to a certain area and being convinced to point out what graffiti he did NOT do; patrol officers apparently had thought this man was accountable for everything in the area. He got out of jail one day in January last year, and “went out and tagged that same night.”

Among the photos he showed were those of the suspect’s room – “every tagger’s room I go into is a shrine for graffiti.” (He had traced the address through a search warrant with an Internet company, pointing to a Comcast residential account.)

What was found in this suspect’s house also included examples he described as follows:
*Every tagger has a “piece” book – “masterpiece” – where they keep practicing their tags
*Also “slapstickers” where they do their tag on a sticker: “that’s like their business card”
*”They take the tools of their trade very seriously” – paint nozzles bought online in bulk
*Forensic analysis was done on the suspect’s computer, where the detective says he “found the smoking gun” – a photo taken at crime scene by victim, matching a photo found on the suspect’s computer.

Another case study centered on the creator of a tag that was large and illegible, causing the detective to quip that “one of the most important things I can do is to read the graffiti.” He then said North Seattle has a much-worse graffiti problem than West Seattle and showed a Green Lake-area tunnel where he had set up an infrared camera, the type marketed to hunters to track their targets at night.

After another case history involving suspects who were “too drunk to get away,” he declared that graffiti is a “gateway crime” – insisting you can’t be “a normal citizen by day and a tagger by night … If you keep tagging, it puts your life in a downward spiral.”

Some taggers are enabled by those who love them, he said, including another case-history subject whose home also was found via Internet tracking, turning up a stepmom who was buying paint for the suspect, and another room where the suspect had covered the walls with graffiti, without the homeowner – his father – noticing and/or caring. That suspect’s vandalism targeted, said the detective, included a school near his father’s house.

From there, the discussion proceeded more as a dialogue than as a briefing; several in attendance were eager to mention places where they had seen tagging. Det. Young explained that with a handful of people responsible for so much damage at any given time, he tries to focus on the worst offenders, rather than one-off type cases. And if it’s gang graffiti, he said, that’s more for the Gang Unit detectives to handle. Asked how to recognize that kind of graffiti vandalism, he said it’s “usually a little easier to read, a little simpler,” while cautioning that what looks like gang graffiti may just be the work of wanna-be “young kids who think it’s cool.”

In one specific local case, an attendee asked him about the Schmitz Park Bridge, which “used to have beautiful graffiti art, and in the past four or five years has turned into a mishmash”; he said his home overlooks the area and he sees people “tag like crazy” many nights.

“I did not know that,” said Det. Young. “Have you called 911 when you see this?”

“I’ve done it a few times …” said the man. His concern was not just the tagging, but the fact he sees the vandals “getting liquored up and high” and then getting back into their cars afterward and taking off.

The detective promised to look into that potential hotspot.

As for solutions:

What about spray-paint restrictions? he was asked. He said he doesn’t think that would do much good, and even if it would, he noted, there’s a “big industry lobby group” against it.

So if you see graffiti and clean it off/paint it over as soon as possible, are you supposed to report it to someone? he was asked. Take a picture and report it, Det. Young suggested. In the longer run, he said, he is working on getting SPD to facilitate online reporting of graffiti, which isn’t possible yet, because, he said, their reporting system doesn’t allow uploading of photos.

SPD’s online resources regarding graffiti can be found here.

COMING UP @ CRIME PREVENTION COUNCIL: They’re hoping to have a Gang Unit speaker at next month’s meeting, April 16th. And a safety walk through Lincoln Park remains on the schedule for June 4th.

OPEN CASES: Nothing major in Lt. Pierre Davis‘s crime-trends update; he says recent arrests have “driven the numbers way, way down” in the property-crimes department. (Anecdotally, we’ve noticed a decline the past few weeks, from reader reports to scanner traffic to official reports.) No arrests yet in two cases he was asked about – the attempted robbery/shooting at Southwest Athletic Complex and the multiple drive-by (non-injury) shootings at a 20th/Cloverdale home.

16 Replies to "Graffiti demystified @ West Seattle Crime Prevention Council"

  • brandon March 20, 2013 (2:42 pm)

    One thing i’ve noticed is that if the wall already has a mural etc on it the graffiti artists dont tag on it. I wonder if this also is a myth or if there is more evidence to support it.

    • WSB March 20, 2013 (2:44 pm)

      He did bring that up. In the beginning, when the mural is nice, apparently it’s generally left alone. But then it fades, or somebody goes ahead and tags it anyway, and then it’s a free-for-all. To some degree, this is what unfortunately has happened to the breezeway murals on the NW Art and Frame/Puerto Vallarta side of The Junction – TR

  • MTHS March 20, 2013 (2:53 pm)

    I want to mention a certain tagger by his tag name but won’t because why give him more attention. But I do wish I could tell him: if you’re going to leave your name everywhere, at least learn how to draw. Your tagging is crap.

  • Polly Aldrich March 20, 2013 (2:57 pm)

    I did find a product that would take spray paint off certain finishes, metal doors and painted walls it is Goof Off in the spray can worked pretty good if you get it early. they need to make these little pricks do all the work and stronger fines and sentencing as it is sooo much work for the victims. just my 2 cents

  • Mike March 20, 2013 (3:04 pm)

    Thank you for that report WSB. I had wanted to make it to the meeting but life got in the way. Stiff kicks in the arse is what these numbnut psuedo artists need! As they get older I curse that THEIR houses, fences, cars and propery be plagued by other spray can wielding idiots.

  • Mark S. March 20, 2013 (3:08 pm)

    Outside the thrill seekers and the utterly pointless tagging, there is work worth appreciating out there. Sadly those that do it are self sabotaging by continuing to do it in a criminal way. I’d like to see a call to arms among those that can call themselves artists to find a way to do their work legitimately.

    I know I’d rather see that space at the Seattle Center filled with great “graffiti” art than Chihuly stuff.

  • Watcher March 20, 2013 (4:01 pm)

    I’m working on an invention – paint that has inert knock-out chemicals in it. If spray paint is applied the chemicals become gas and are released and the tagger passes out. I’d make it fatal but that’d get some people’s underpants all wadded up. Alternatively a possee in hiding with paint ball guns.

  • ghar72 March 20, 2013 (4:18 pm)

    I know Det Young said only 1% of graffiti is gang graffiti, but is there any way to tell? And what’s the purpose of that sort of tagging? Identifying “turf”? There was mention in the report on the 20th and Cloverdale drive-bys about tagging on the steps. Was there any talk about this being a gang tag? And ditto the thanks, WSB, for attending and reporting for those of us unable to make it.

  • April March 20, 2013 (4:30 pm)

    Thank you for reporting on this. Interesting information!

  • MB March 20, 2013 (4:58 pm)

    I knew a LOT of people in high school here in West Seattle who tagged, none of which were involved in any sort of gang activity, all of which grew up to be productive, successful, respectable adults. Hell, some probably even read and comment on the blog! Doesn’t make it ok, but I think most of them were just misdirecting their energy…a combination of being bored and knowing it was something they “weren’t supposed to do.” A few were very talented artists and can do some amazing stuff with a spray can. That said, now that I’m a “grown up” who owns a home and truely understands the value of other people’s property, I pretty much want to drop kick taggers ;) And as an artist myself, I cringe at some of the crappy tags I see around…sheesh, at least have some pride in your “work” and make sure it doesn’t completely suck!

  • Neighbor March 20, 2013 (6:46 pm)

    Growing up back east I saw beautiful work, it was funny, thought provoking, and done with style. In this city it’s all just so crappy. It’s insulting to the eyes and to the precious clean air we all breathe. It’s become visual masterbation that no one really wants to see.
    At least no one in this town will ever have to worry about their pieces being stolen off the wall and sold by some scumbag art dealer…

  • Mike March 20, 2013 (8:20 pm)

    I try to report graffiti that I see using the online report found on They are very responsive to those reports and get out pretty quickly to clean up the graffiti.

    I think it makes a difference, at least for my route home from work!

  • nick March 20, 2013 (8:23 pm)

    I fully agree neighbor some of the graffiti parks in philly were really cool. However here at least in my neighborhood I do see a lot of gang graffiti and crappy tags. I always report it but it usually goes right back up

  • The Farm March 21, 2013 (9:14 am)

    Back in the 90’s I painted a lot of garages that were being hit by taggers. I painted simple huge flowers that covered most of the garage leaving little space for tagging. This deterred the would be taggers. Some of the buildings were demolished but others are still there and haven’t been tagged. I believe the “tagging artists” do respect other “art.” So if you have a problem paint it with flowers….also making the background gray seems to discourage tagging too.

  • Lea March 21, 2013 (7:26 pm)

    Actually, taggers leave murals and other adorned surfaces alone, not out of respect, but because their tags won’t stand out on them. I wanted to make the meeting also, but had a prior commitment. I hope they hold more similar meetings.

  • Ace20604 March 23, 2013 (9:02 am)

    Best pieces are the first to be buffed, while peoples names are written all over the place.

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