Apr 30, 2024 - News

PennDOT spent $182K in 2023 removing graffiti

Examples of the fresh graffiti taggings along I-76 in Philadelphia.

Fresh tagging along Philadelphia's highways. Photo: Submitted by a reader

PennDOT spent more than $182,000 to remove graffiti from state highways last year, with more than 70% of that going toward removing taggings in and around the Philadelphia region.

Why it matters: Graffiti has been identified as a persistent nuisance and among the quality-of-life issues that Mayor Cherelle Parker is looking to tackle over her term as part of her "safer, cleaner, greener" initiative.

Driving the news: Fresh graffiti regularly crops up across the city, including some made along the I-76 corridor near the Montgomery Drive on-ramp.

  • The city received more than 27,000 complaints about graffiti over the last 16 months, including more than two dozen that listed the "city morgue" as a troubled spot, per 311 data analyzed by Axios.
  • PennDOT tells Axios that it spent over $129,000 removing graffiti in Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery counties last year — an effort that took crews over 1,700 hours, or about 71 days, to complete.
  • Crews typically ramp up cleanup in the summer and will address the graffiti in the I-76 area in the coming months.

The other side: Last year, the city removed graffiti from more than 185,000 properties and street poles, city spokesperson Keisha McCarty-Skelton tells Axios.

  • Philadelphia police tell Axios they've arrested more than 240 people for defacing public property since 2015.
  • Gangs used to tag rivals' turf, but police spokesperson Shawn Ritchie says that's "a thing of the past" now that most youths use social media to taunt enemies.
Data: City of Philadelphia; Chart: Axios Visuals

Zoom in: While Philadelphia is considered in some hip-hop circles the birthplace of graffiti, many still view taggings as acts of vandalism that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair.

Yes, but: Philadelphia has considered ways to better incorporate graffiti into the city's social fabric, including a plan to turn Graffiti Pier along the Delaware River into a park and tourist destination.

Flashback: The city's nationally renowned Mural Arts Philadelphia traces its roots to the graffiti scene, executive director Jane Golden says.

  • Golden started her career with what was then known as the city's anti-graffiti network. This program tackled the problem by involving well-known graffiti artists in paid public art projects and citywide cleanups.
  • The program was phased out and some of its goals folded into Mural Arts' mission, though Golden says she's talked to city officials about possibly reviving a similar program.

What they're saying: Mural Arts has been on both sides of the art versus vandalism debate as the organization spent about $50,000 to remove graffiti from more than 50 art projects tagged over in 2023, Golden says.

  • She saw a spike in the problem during the pandemic, with more artists turning to social media to grow popularity by posting pictures and videos of them brazenly tagging in public spaces.

The bottom line: "There's this thing about being part of the underground and defacing walls, but there's this upside to doing something really different, and beautiful and inspiring and valued by society," Golden says. "We hope that there can be that shift."

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