Indianapolis graffiti ordinance focuses on property owners

Republican City County Councilor Jeff Miller says it's vandalism with a message.
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Graffiti is considered a big problem in parts of the city, a blight on the neighborhood and a sign of decay. But how do you keep the writing off the wall? A new proposal to get rid of graffiti has some suggesting its sponsors go back to the drawing board.

Charles Floyd works hard to keep up his near south side home. It bothers him when he sees graffiti painted on nearby buildings, walls and signs.

"A lot of it seems artistic, but it's really destructive to other folk's property. A lot of it is gang activity and wanna-be activity," said Floyd.

Republican City County Councilor Jeff Miller agrees: it's vandalism with a message.

"It basically says I've taken over a building and I can do what I want with it," said Miller.

Miller and Democratic Councilor Zach Adamson are behind a new ordinance to get rid of graffiti. While the city cleans up tagging on public property, their measure would require private property owners to do the same or a face a $50 fine.

Floyd isn't sure he likes the idea. "The problem with that is most of the property owners aren't doing it."

Miller said while that's true, it's like illegal dumping. If you don't clean it up, it victimizes your neighbors as well.  Miller said that's why the ordinance takes a" carrot and stick approach."

"The stick is the fee saying you need to get rid of this, but the carrot is some free abatement methods to help someone take care of their property," he said.

Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, for instance, plans to make graffiti removal part of its Adopt a Block Program.

Joseph Jarzen, KIB's Community Engagement Coordinator said, besides picking up trash, block captains will organize efforts to paint over graffiti.

He said KIB is also working on providing free paint and brushes to property owners who've been vandalized, and it hopes to organize service days where groups volunteer to help paint over graffiti.

"Graffiti isn't beautiful. It deters from other projects," said Jarzen.

He said helping the city address the problem fits well with KIB's mission.

"We're out planting trees, helping neighbors create green spaces and and when you look at some of these green spaces with vandals next door, it doesn't do much to help the overall quality of life we're trying to create," Jarzen said.

But Kevin Koch, who runs his pump and motor business from a large warehouse off of South Madison, doesn't think the ordinance is fair.

"I don't think it will do anything, honestly," he said.

Referring to the side and back of his large building, covered with graffiti from the base to the rooftop he said, "I can put paint up there, but all it is is a new canvas for them to put up new stuff."

Koch said he's had problems with graffiti ever since he moved into the building five years ago. He said at one point, he even asked the vandals to deface just the back of the building, but it didn't work.

"You just can't keep them from doing it," he said. "Until somebody can stop them there's no sense trying to fight it."

Miller said while the Department of Public Safety is stepping up efforts to stop taggers, "they're very hard to catch."

He said the ordinance is modeled after "best practices" in other cities.

Adamson said "how do you not penalize the victim" was a big concern as they crafted the ordinance (which the mayor's office supports.)

But he said, "It's organized in a system that gives [the property owner] a number of different options to take. Only if you choose to do nothing, will you be fined."

Adamson said there are also plans to get work releases groups to do the painting.

As much as he hates looking at graffiti, Floyd remains skeptical.

"I just don't know what the answer is," he said. "but there is a cost [to graffiti.] It does have an impact" on the neighborhood.

The council's rules and public policy committee will consider the ordinance in July.

In the meantime, Miller said a change to the state's Good Samaritan law, effective July 1, should help.

That law lets people go on vacant or abandoned properties to mow or pick up trash. It was expanded to let them paint over graffiti as well.