You’d better watch your back Gare Voyer, because the DC Council is gunning for you and every other Washington street artist. Yesterday, Councilmembers Brandon Todd and LaRuby May introduced punitive legislation that would significantly increase the fines for graffiting, broadly defined to include everything from tagging structures with spray paint to slapping stickers to pasting your band’s posters on the bases of light poles.
Under current District law, the fine for graffiting is $250 to $1,000 and the fine for possessing graffiti materials is $100 to $1000. So if you’re a local artist out putting up wheatpastes on U Street today and you manage to get busted by a bored and petty police officer, you can expect to pay between $350 and $2,000 to the city. Which is already a helluva lot for an artist. But if (and probably when) this proposed legislation becomes law, the fine for graffiting will rise dramatically to a minimum of $2,500. And the fine for possession of graffiti materials will rise to $500 to $2,500. So getting busted would incur at least a $3,000 penalty, which I think is ridiculous. As one who’s stuck a few stickers around this town (and written about others doing so), I’m admittedly biased. But c’mon. $3000 or more for putting a sticker on the back of a stop sign that’s already covered in them? That’s some bullshit.
I suspect the Councilmembers’ intent is to deter and punish the wanton use of spray paint specifically. Fine. Spray painting your handle on the side of someone’s house is malicious and costly (and usually not particularly creative). There’s seldom any aesthetic gain there. But putting a decorative wheatpaste on a newspaper box or a clever sticker on a lamppost is another matter entirely, what many see as a welcome form of urban expression that adds much-needed character to our public spaces. The line between the two is of course subjective and I don’t really expect the Council to make those judgement calls. But further criminalizing all walks of street art, as if it’s all just plain vandalism, is not the solution. The fines for street art are already excessive; the Council should focus on real crimes and leave the artists alone.
If this draconian law passes, I’m afraid Stuck in DC may have to resort to a new method of informing Washingtonians that this is not new york.