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The City Journals

Graffiti in West Valley City is still a problem, but not what it was

Jan 13, 2022 12:39PM ● By Darrell Kirby

West Valley City officials believe there has been a gradual decline in graffiti over the last 10 to 15 years, with incidents like this one along 3500 South becoming more sporadic. (Darrell Kirby/City Journals)

By Darrell Kirby | [email protected]

As West Valley City started to come of age in the 1990s, one of its growing pains was the presence of graffiti. 

While not the widespread blight that mars the cityscapes of America’s major metropolitan areas, graffiti was nevertheless a problem as West Valley City was maturing into urban adulthood and trying to shed its reputation, deserved or not, of being plagued by that type of vandalism compared to other area cities. 

However, a concerted effort that largely started in the mid 2000s has helped West Valley City gain a good measure of control over graffiti on buildings, walls, fences, utility poles and any other reasonably accessible surfaces (and even some not easily reached). 

“I would characterize graffiti in West Valley City as a low occurrence and pretty stable situation,” said Layne Morris, director of West Valley City’s Community Preservation Department, which oversees graffiti removal. For example, incidents of reported graffiti have tapered off to about 200 annually over the last five years. Before that, known occurrences of graffiti showed up around the city about 400 times a year. Those figures do not include graffiti that was cleaned up before it could be reported and included in the statistics.

Despite the gains made in cleaning up the illicit “artwork,” graffiti in the city has its ebbs and flows, but will probably never completely disappear. “Graffiti kind of happens in pulses, depending on the type of graffiti it is,” Morris said.

“There’s always a new crop of junior high kids that want to try it out because it’s fun or interesting or whatever the attraction may be,” Morris said, adding that the culprits are not exclusively kids in their teens. Morris said gang graffiti, meanwhile, is an ongoing problem, but  the city has made strides in controlling it.  

The tide started to turn in 2008 when the Community Preservation Department hired a full-time graffiti officer equipped with the means to remove spray paint, markers and other methods of defacing property. 

Morris said that residents are a key partner in tackling graffiti in West Valley City, especially on private property. City crews don’t have the time or resources to clean up markings left on residential or commercial buildings. “The way you win the war against graffiti is by having engaged residents who just simply don’t tolerate it,” Morris said. 

“You can’t raise taxes high enough to have employees of the city go out and always remove graffiti,” he said. “If you just have city employees running around looking for it, you’re just never going to be able to address it quickly.” 

Plus, liability and other legal issues prevent city workers from entering private property to scour  graffiti.

Morris said timing is important in preventing the spread of graffiti. “How you get rid of graffiti is by addressing it quickly.” 

Ideally, it is hoped that it can be cleansed or painted over in no more than 24 to 48 hours. The longer it stays, the more likely it is to attract taggers and others who aim to outdo each other or mark their territory. “As a homeowner, if you train whoever’s putting graffiti on your fence that they’re going to put it on one night and you have it off the next day, they very quickly figure out they’re going to have to find another spot,” Morris said. 

To help residents and businesses remove markings from their premises, the Community Preservation Department provides cleaning supplies free of charge to anyone who needs them. They include graffiti wipes to remove and paint to cover up the blight. 

West Valley City fares pretty well on incidents of graffiti when compared to similar-sized cities around America. Statistics provided by the Southern California-based firm Graffiti Tracker show that one city, population 122,000, had 7,748 incidents of graffiti reported in 2020. Another city with 127,000 people, recorded 815 complaints of graffiti. 

“What we saw with COVID is cities that said they were getting slammed” with graffiti, said Graffiti Tracker spokeswoman Alejandra Cabral, whose company is hired by cities to record and analyze their graffiti (West Valley City is not one of those communities). She pointed out, however, that it is not fully known if there truly was more graffiti or if it seemed like it because it stayed up longer because cities cut resources to fight it during the height of the pandemic and its economic impacts.

Graffiti art—the more elaborate, complex murals usually found on public or private walls or sides of buildings—make up only a fraction of graffiti logged by those cities. “Less than 1% of the graffiti that we see and that we have so far recorded and tracked,” Cabral said. The remaining 99% is a combination of tagging and random graffiti.

Utah code defines graffiti as "any form of unauthorized printing, writing, spraying, scratching, affixing, etching, or inscribing on the property of another regardless of the content or the nature of the material used in the commission of the act.

Charges can range from a misdemeanor when the damage caused is less than $300 to a second-degree felony when the damage exceeds $5,000. 

Penalties include ordering the convicted offender to pay restitution to “the victim in an amount equal to the costs incurred by the victim as a result of the graffiti,” according to state law. 

If the graffiti occurs on an overpass or underpass and removal requires that traffic be detoured in order to remove it, an additional $1,000 in restitution can be assessed to the guilty party. 

In West Valley City, graffiti offenders sentenced to community service might be required to fulfill that by cleaning up their handiwork. “When you have a kid who sees what it takes to clean up graffiti…they seem to kind of come around,” Morris said. 

Depending on the source, the costs associated with graffiti and its removal range from $15 billion to $18 billion a year in the United States. West Valley City spends about $12,000 a year for removal supplies for the public and $100,000 annually for its graffiti officer, his vehicle and equipment. 

West Valley City provides several ways for residents and businesses to report graffiti: 

Graffiti Hotline: 801-963-3467

Text message: 801-509-2702

Email: [email protected]

Messages left will be returned as soon as possible. 

“At the end of the day, it still comes down to you’ve got to get that stuff off as fast as you can,” Morris concluded.