Mural is students' artful approach to graffiti problem

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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The Vancouver City Council will fight a growing graffiti problem in multiple ways. Students from Peter S. Ogden Elementary School, however, took a more focused approach.

In June, fifth graders painted a mural on a building facing Andresen Road near Fourth Plain Boulevard. More than just a pretty picture along a stretch of businesses, the nature scene was made to detract vandals. The building, a former greenhouse now used for storage by Davis Landscaping, had been a frequent target of graffiti, said office manager Amy Reams.

"We get tagged all the time, and we always have," she said, pointing to large discolored patches on surrounding buildings where graffiti has been covered by Davis employees. Security cameras haven't helped, as the vandals strike in the dark and have their faces obscured. Reams said they must scale pipes to reach the rooftops.

But the building with the mural has so far been left alone, Reams said earlier this month.

Ogden teacher Carol Patrick said her students researched ways to fight graffiti, including what other cities have done, and learned that walls with murals were less likely to be tagged. Patrick approached Davis Landscaping to ask if her students could use the building as a canvas because she frequently drives past it.

"It was an eyesore," Patrick said.

Patrick contacted the Clark County Mural Society and was put in touch with Eve Ellis-Carlson, an artist who this year finished a mural in the library at Burnt Bridge Creek Elementary School, where her daughter attends.

Ellis-Carlson said she proposed a simple design for the Davis building that was rejected, and Patrick said she worked with Mary Niemela, a recent Columbia River High School graduate, on a smaller wildlife design. Ellis-Carlson said she took Niemela's flat, rough sketch and completely redesigned the mural for the Davis building, which includes trees, clouds, birds, a river and a boy fishing off a bridge. Ellis-Carlson spent hours sketching the picture in pencil on the building, then used a paint marker. She was assisted by another volunteer, Ben Houston, in outlining the mural so the students could paint.

Patrick said she told her students that the key distinction between art and graffiti is that artists obtain permission from the property owner, while graffiti is unwanted. She often takes her class to the 86th Avenue walking bridge over Burnt Bridge Creek, and discussed how solvents used to clean graffiti there washes into the creek, so the graffiti ending up causing more harm.

Ellis-Carlson said she enjoyed her role in a community attempt to elevate public art and test whether murals can deter spray-painting vandals.

"I think it's a small piece in a bigger puzzle, but it can have such a positive impact," she said.

City Council's agenda

Patrick said she plans to be at the public hearing, 7 p.m. Aug. 18 at City Hall, when the council will vote on an anti-graffiti ordinance. She's had both Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt and Vancouver Police Cpl. Doug Rickard talk with her students about graffiti and how public policies can make a difference.

During a workshop in April, the council heard a proposal that includes new criminal codes to assist with prosecuting vandals, new civil penalties for parents of minor offenders, and the addition of "maintained free of graffiti" to the city's minimum property maintenance code.

At the end of the workshop, Leavitt said the proposals will put "a little more teeth" into the city code, and members of the council agreed. They also wanted to emphasize education, such as having businesses post city codes regarding graffiti near the spray paint cans.

While graffiti already falls within a law prohibiting "malicious mischief," other cities have singled out graffiti as a distinct crime, a gross misdemeanor. Additionally, the city would make it a misdemeanor to be in possession of graffiti implements (defined as nozzles and other tools, in addition to spray paint). Minors would also be prohibited from buying spray paint.

Vancouver Police Cpl. Duane Boynton told the council that a "possession of graffiti implements" crime would help nab suspects caught after leaving a scene. If the suspect has paint on his hands and a backpack with spray paint cans, for example, he could be arrested for possession of graffiti implements even if he wasn't caught spray painting.

In Washington, a gross misdemeanor can bring a sentence of up to one year in jail. A misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail.

Neighborhoods Program Manager Judi Bailey said the city would seek jail alternatives, such as making offenders clean up graffiti as part of a community service sentence.

The council also discussed a potential fine for parents of minor offenders, with a maximum liability of $5,000.

Councilor Bill Turlay asked how much of the graffiti was gang-related. Vancouver Police Cpl. Doug Rickard said only 10 to 15 percent.

In addition to being ugly and the source of citizen complaints, graffiti costs public agencies money in staff time and paint.

Vancouver's public works department, for example, spends enough time covering up graffiti on public property, including at parks, that it's the equivalent of two full-time employees, said Loretta Callahan, public works spokeswoman. C-Tran dispatches employees to clean up graffiti on bus stops and buses, while the Washington State Patrol is responsible for cleaning up graffiti on state highways and overpasses and Clark Public Utilities has to clean it off utility boxes.

The council will do a first reading of the ordinance Aug. 11.