Blue Mori hops on a scooter and travels only about half a mile to work every day at Tobacco King in Shaw. Mori said he can always count on seeing graffiti during his commute.
“Around here in Shaw, there’s pretty much graffiti everywhere,” said Mori. “You can’t walk around and not see it.”
Mori isn’t kidding – there’s graffiti right outside, splayed on the side of Tobacco Kings’ ATM machine. And on the USPS blue mailbox on the corner of the block. If you walk down further, there’s graffiti sprayed along the entire side wall of a building.
Graffiti has been a particularly consistent trend in neighborhoods like Shaw, Logan Circle and U Street. Even as an act of artistic expression, graffiti is considered to be vandalism, and can result in $250 fines at a minimum.
The issue of petty crimes like graffiti, litter and marijuana was raised at a recent emergency Shaw meeting in response to the barrage of violent shootings.
In a packed room full of concerned and fearful Shaw residents, ANC Commissioner Rachelle Nigro listed several of these smaller ‘nuisance’ crimes as issues that plague areas in Shaw like the Kennedy Recreation Center.
According to data provided by the Department of Public Work (DPW) Office of Communications, there have been over 5,000 service requests for graffiti removal in the District this year. The number of service requests has stayed well within this range over the last few years, with nearly 11,000 removal requests combined in 2017 and 2018.
Though the clean-up service is free of charge to businesses, it still comes at a cost to taxpayers. The city has budgeted nearly $800,000 for graffiti clean-up services this year.
Additional data showed that at least 30 different graffiti removal requests have been submitted in the last month for the Shaw, Logan Circle and U Street neighborhoods.
But many employees and business owners said that a petty crime like graffiti is mainly a nuisance issue, rather than a serious problem.
“We’ve got 1,001 problems but that’s [graffiti] not one,” said Maxwell Hessman, the general manager for Right Proper, a brewing company in Shaw.
Hessman said that the homeless community and drug use in the area are among the main issues they face, but graffiti does not make the list.
When asked if he reported the graffiti sprayed on the green trash bin outside of Right Proper, Hessman said that it doesn’t affect business or really bother him.
ANC Commissioner Michael Brown, who covers the area where Tobacco King is located, said that graffiti has never been a major concern voiced by his constituents.
“Are my eyes closed when I’m walking around?” said Brown, when told that there was graffiti right outside of the coffee shop where we met.
Brown said that the biggest concern currently for his area revolves around the shootings in Shaw and speeding cars on specific roads, but that doesn’t count out graffiti as an issue.
“It may be because we’re not hearing about it,” said Brown, in reference to the small community presence at monthly ANC meetings.
Brown might have a point, given that Mori, the Tobacco King employee, didn’t know that he could submit a graffiti removal request, free of charge to the business.
The team of employees who clean the graffiti are employed by DPW and are often recognized by the white van they drive to the clean-up site.
Some District residents consider graffiti to be a part of the District’s history, and prefer that taxpayer dollars be spent solving other issues.
“People often just see vandalism, but graffiti has a really interesting history and for many those tags are full of meaning and representation,” wrote Aaron Howe, in Twitter direct message. “So while many see the graffiti van as cleaning up vandalism, I see it as erasing meaning and representation of long time DC residents.”
Aww shit we got the class war van hanging around NoMa, Washington DC. Figures. Graffiti, like homeless encampments, are simply nuisances. pic.twitter.com/PXX1p4vP9R
— Aaron the Spooky Anthropologist (@Anarchopology) September 19, 2019
Graffiti and murals cover many walls across the District, which is partially as a result of MuralsDC, a DPW initiative that aims to prevent graffiti across the city.
According to their website, the initiative selects specific walls that are “frequent targets of illegal graffiti or at risk for graffiti.”
Of the 85 murals across the city, eight are located in the Shaw, Logan Circle and U Street neighborhoods.
Hessman of Right Proper said that the lack of graffiti in their area may have to do with the “beautiful murals” on nearby walls.