There's street art and then there's graffiti. One can be beautiful, creative and inspiring; the other can be destructive, ugly and a huge nuisance. But the dividing line is difficult to determine. For proof of that, just head to the front of the graffiti war: Sheridan Boulevard, where you can see how two different cities are fighting this problem. Sheridan borders with both cities from Colfax south to Yale. And if you take a drive along this strip, you'll quickly recognize that graffiti and tagging are an issue here. Look a little closer, though, and you'll notice that the east side of the street is more marked up.
That's because the two cities have different ways of dealing with graffiti. Both cities have graffiti hotlines -- but who's responsible for cleaning up reported sites varies.
When graffiti is reported in Lakewood, a notice is sent to the property owner ordering that it be removed within five days. If not, "Code Enforcement has several enforcement avenues they can pursue."
In Denver, graffiti removal is part of a city-wide program operated through the Denver Department of Public Works. Residents can simply call 311 to report graffiti and request that it be removed. Although property owners need to fill out an authorization form, they are not responsible: When the reported site is next on the list, the graffiti will be cleaned at the city's expense.
"The distinction is that when you call into Lakewood, they will send out an employee who acts like a policeman and gives you a citation," explains Doug Anderson, a former Lakewood City Council member who's long been interested in the issue. "[It] gives you a certain number of days in which to clean up the graffiti on your property -- if you don't, they'll do it for you and charge you. In Denver, it's a public program. So if you report graffiti, as soon as [the report] reaches the top of the pile, it will be cleaned up."
It's not always perfect, but it at least gets cleaned or covered in Denver.
"Our goal is to remove the reported graffiti within two business days, weather permitting," says Emily Williams, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Public Works. "We can't remove graffiti if it is raining or snowing, or when we are experiencing freezing temperatures, though. It's not a crew thing; it's an equipment thing."
Denver also has a year-round Brush Off program, similar to adopt-a-street. Last year, Williams says, volunteers removed graffiti over a 136-block span during the yearly community event.
According to Public Works, there has been an average of more than 1,400 graffiti abatement requests every month in 2013, an increase of over 30 percent from 2012. Even with the large numbers, Denver stands by its turnaround time -- for sites it knows about. "The biggest point that our crews would like to stress is that we need folks to report graffiti vandalism when they see it," Williams adds.
As for public property -- street signs, sidewalks, utility boxes, etc. -- both cities again have different approaches. In Denver, the same graffiti-abasement program does the work; in Lakewood, defendants sentenced to community service are used for the cleanup.
By making property-owners responsible for graffiti on their property, Lakewood often seems to handle tagging faster. But it hasn't removed it altogether, particularly not from the shared border on Sheridan. Take a look at this graffiti density map from Lakewood:
City of Lakewood
Is graffiti spilling over from Denver? That's what some residents of the neighborhoods around Sheridan have charged.
According to a Lakewood report from 2011: "Acknowledging the fact that graffiti doesn't recognize city boundaries, and since Lakewood shares such a large border with Denver, the largest city in Colorado; Denver and Lakewood began working together through an unofficial coalition. The coalition includes representatives from both cities' governing councils, prominent community and business leaders, and representatives from both police departments. The coalition meets to discuss what is being done, what can be done and what we can do in partnership to combat graffiti."
At one point, Lakewood considered an abatement program similar to Denver's, but after initial research it was "not implemented due to the initial start up cost of $214,298.74, and the continuing cost each year of $153,298.74, to the city," according to city documents.
"There are a lot of things on the budget that come first, and if you're going, 'Gosh, we need to spend another million dollars cleaning up graffiti this year,' it's a problem," says Anderson. "Essentially, in Lakewood, it's an off-budget item. It's put on individuals instead of on the city -- and it gets it done."
"If your house catches on fire and burns down to a shell and is inhabitable, or if you're flooded in one of the canyons, the council will put a notice on there that says, 'Sorry, you've got to clean up your property'" explains Anderson. "Essentially, you can't leave a public nuisance -- you can't leave your car on the road if it breaks down. Obviously, it's different in the level of extremes, but it's still from the same concept."
On the city's website, residents can find suggestions to help prevent graffiti on their property, including motion-sensor lights, fencing and "hostile landscaping," including climbing roses or holly vines.
"For me as a landlord, it was one of those pet peeves that always, always, always drove me crazy. It was almost the equivalent of saying, 'You no longer own the property,'" Anderson says. "After you've been tagged about the 28th time, all of a sudden, the motion detector lights and vines start to sound like a cost-effective way of managing it."
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Particularly when you're looking at another city's graffiti across the street. From our archives: "Denver's best graffiti art: The top twenty"