Washington’s latest attempt at graffiti cleanup: drones

WSDOT’s new drone pilot program aims to cover up hard-to-reach areas known as “heaven spots,” but is it just painting over a larger problem?

Mural artist Crick Lont (known as dozer_art on social media) is seen next to a commissioned mural he painted, with local graffiti writer Charms, on the exterior of La Esperanza Mercado Y Carniceria in Beacon Hill

Mural artist Crick Lont (known as dozer_art on social media) is seen next to a commissioned mural he painted, with local graffiti writer Charms, on the exterior of La Esperanza Mercado y Carniceria in Beacon Hill, Thursday, May 30, 2024. The mural features a large portrait of Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata alongside the landscape, flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert. The pair painted the mural in 2020 and, Lont says, wanted it to “reflect the community.” The mural is a mixture of stenciled and freehand spray-paint art. (M. Scott Brauer for Cascade PBS)

Chris “Crick” Lont was in his early 20s when he started creating graffiti and was charged with destruction of property. The first thing he wrote with an aerosol can was BABS, for no particular reason besides thinking the letters were really cool. 

“How the letters were and how pleasant it was on the eyes, it kind of attracted me,” Lont said. “It wasn’t even really the vandalism part of it.” 

Graffiti is visible under the Emerson Street bridge near Fisherman’s Terminal. (M. Scott Brauer for Cascade PBS)

When Lont started his art journey, he was delivering pizzas full time and making his art on the side. Now he’s a muralist who just finished two commissioned murals: one of the former Seattle Supersonics basketball team and another of University of Washington football players Michael Penix, Jr. and Steve Emtman at a private complex in Georgetown. 

If he could go back in time to when he started painting graffiti, he would tell himself, “Instead of getting in trouble for it [graffiti art], you can get paid for it and the city will give you money instead of arresting you,” Lont said. 

Lont brought together more than 75 local, national and international graffiti artists to Dozer’s Warehouse in North Beacon Hill, where, starting in 2017, they made over 100 murals, held live music performances and sold art, all open to the public. 

Lont remembers how the space, demolished in 2021, brought artists and other people in the community together. 

But one person’s art can be considered vandalism by government officials. The state of Washington is bringing that disagreement to a new level with a new initiative to cover graffiti using drones in hard-to-reach places like bridges, overpasses or very high up on walls. This pilot program will run throughout the rest of the year from Tacoma to Olympia. 

In the graffiti community, these hard-to-reach areas are known as “heaven spots,” according to B. Gnarley, a graffiti hunter who photographs graffiti he sees around the state for his magazine of the same name. He has used drones to shoot graffiti in heaven spots since he started the magazine. 

“They can live forever in these heaven spots,” B. Gnarley said. He says people try to put graffiti in these places because they’re harder to reach, thus harder to remove. 

One photo he took using a drone was in Mill Creek, about 15 miles north of Seattle on Interstate 5. An abandoned mill overlooking a lake is covered from top to bottom in aerosol paint. On the walls are different graffiti letters in thin or bold fonts and gradients of blues, reds and oranges. Prominent are a large red “SHIA WAS HERE” and a green character that resembles a bear. 

B. Gnarley, a photographer who chronicles the Seattle region’s graffiti scene, walks past graffiti on the so-called Dookie Wall in SODO, May 28, 2024. The Dookie Wall, so named because the area was often used by dog-walkers, is considered a “free wall” on which graffiti writers are unofficially allowed to paint . (M. Scott Brauer for Cascade PBS)

Taking Flight 

The state’s new drone graffiti removal program may soon erase that hard-to-reach work. A few highway maintenance employees are being trained to operate paint-spraying drones. WSDOT Maintenance and Operations Superintendent Michael Gauger and his crew will spend the rest of the year testing the drone. A person on the ground operates the drone, which feeds gray paint through a hose. It is illegal to fly drones over active lanes of traffic, so areas where the drone will fly will be closed or slowed during its operation. 

More than $815,000 was spent on graffiti removal statewide in 2023, according to the Washington Department of Transportation blog, which includes more than 10,000 hours of labor to cover 700,000 square feet of graffiti along highways. 

Graffiti – marking public or private property without the consent of the property owner – can be considered a gross demeanor in Washington and can be punishable by nearly a year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine. 

Gauger came up with the idea for the pilot program after thinking of other ways to cover graffiti on the Capital Boulevard Bridge in Olympia. Large trucks known as UBITs are needed for graffiti in hard-to-reach places. There are only six in the state, and their use is prioritized for bridge maintenance and inspection work. 

Gauger’s team received a two-part research grant, totaling $85,000, to start the drone pilot program before the state passed a $1 million bill in the 2024 session to fund a graffiti reduction and removal pilot program, some of which may go toward the drone project, according to April Leigh, WSDOT Communications Consultant. 

Gauger said one advantage to using drones to cover graffiti is to ensure the safety of their workers. 

“Using this drone will never require fall protection, a man basket, or a crane to lower people down there,” Gauger said. “So there’s the possibility of cost savings, but the multiplying part of that is the reduction of risk to our employees.” 

A detail of a spray-can character in a graffiti piece by local artist Merlot on the so called Dookie Wall in SODO. (M. Scott Brauer for Cascade PBS)

An Aqualine Endure sprays gray paint onto a wall in this still from a WSDOT video promoting their new graffiti drone. (Courtesy of WSDOT)

Seattle's plan 

Mayor Bruce Harrell released his One Seattle Graffiti Plan in 2022, to face graffiti head on through community collaboration and city-wide graffiti removal teams, enforcement and assistance for impacted businesses. 

The city reports that they’ve received more than 9,000 requests to remove graffiti so far in 2024, and more than 21,000 requests in all of 2023. They completed more than 8,000 requests in 2024, and about 21,000 in 2023. 

Paul Jackson, Seattle director of graffiti programs and initiatives, said they don’t plan to use drones for graffiti removal in the city, since Seattle is a denser urban environment than other places WSDOT is trying the drone program. Instead, they’re focusing on power-washing. 

One part of the Seattle initiative takes a very different approach – focused more on encouraging art than removing graffiti. For the Many Hands Art Initiative, the city commissions artists to create art and channel their creative energy into public art.  

“How do we activate these spaces that are healthy for our community, versus having opportunities for tagging and graffiti?” Jackson said. “It’s both a beautification and prevention measure.” 

The Seattle Office of Arts and Culture awarded grants to seven art organizations through 2023’s Spatial Justice through Street Art program, the first project involved in the Many Hands Art Initiative. 

Groups created street murals across the city in places like Ballard/Interbay, Bitter Lake, Downtown, Rainier Beach and SODO. Some of the organizations made programs that allowed artists to paint these murals. 

Urban Artworks painted a mural spanning 1,000 feet – featuring vibrant greens of dinosaurs, the asteroids that made them extinct, native plants, crocodiles and the Seattle skyline in Ballard – as part of its Mural Apprentice Program, in which young artists and teachers put their writing on the wall. 

Another group, Coyote Central, commissioned young artists to paint a mural of a blue person with long, flowing blue hair holding the hands of other people with flower or rock heads. Bees around the people carry baskets of food and the phrase, “Feeding our communities is Healing our Communities.” The theme of the mural is food insecurity among the neighborhoods in Lake City and Bitter Lake. 

Graffiti, including images of Seattle Mariner Julio Rodriguez painted by local artist Desmond Hansen, covers a “free wall” behind a West Seattle Rite Aid. A free wall is where graffiti writers are unofficially allowed to paint. (M. Scott Brauer for Cascade PBS) (M. Scott Brauer)

One of the groups, 206 Zulu, is a nonprofit that focuses on helping people express themselves through hip-hop, dance and art like graffiti. The group is based in Washington Hall in the Central District, where they hold events like dance, graffiti art or other competitions. 

206 Zulu’s executive director, Khazm Kogita, whose artist name is King Khazm, said they used the $60,000 grant to commission artists to make three murals at 13th & Fir Family Housing, an affordable family housing building with 156 apartments in the Chinatown/International District. 

The first mural, inspired by the Coast Salish tribes, shows people rowing on a red boat with Salish tribe markings in a large range of shades: blues, reds, purples, grays and blacks. 

The second was an abstract mural of a woman dancing to music coming from a gramophone. 

The third spans the height of the six-story building on two parts of the structure. It features the eyes of children, with different career paths in their background. One of them wears a yellow construction hat. Another is underwater, next to a fish with diving goggles on. 

The grant money was distributed to the artists and spent on supplies to create the murals. 

“We don’t condone illegal vandalism. It’s kind of a nuanced history and certainly [we] understand the roots and context of how graffiti has evolved, but in terms of 206 Zulu, we use aerosol art as a way to create a vibrant community,” Kogita said. 

Before making the murals, Kogita did community outreach to learn what they wanted the mural to show and researched the local art scene. He said graffiti can also become part of the culture of neighborhoods. 

“Part of the thing we do that we want to champion are alternatives away from vandalism and have alternative spaces for people to develop their skills and nurture their techniques to be able to improve themselves as artists,” Kogita said. 

Kogita said another possible way to mitigate vandalism is for the city to have “free walls” to allow people to express themselves freely in different areas. 

He shared that some of the graffiti community felt there were larger problems for the state to tackle, like homelessness, mental health and addiction. 

“Graffiti, it’s not really important in the larger scheme,” Kogita said. “Those are the real issues that are concerning to the community.”

Christina Goto, who grew up in Sammamish but now lives in Seattle’s Rainier Beach, agrees and thinks the money from the drone program would be better allocated to different things in the city like public health and education. 

“I am really opposed to spending more money than is necessary on things that aren’t critical in terms of bettering the quality of the lives of the community,” she said. 

Goto was one of a few commenters who shared their disdain for the program on Instagram. She thinks free walls or funding artists to make murals would better alleviate the graffiti problem.  

B. Gnarley feels politicians go after graffiti for instant gratification. “It’s the same in every city. They’re always going to go after the low-hanging fruit. It’s easy to do,” he said. “And there’s plenty of other problems that we deal with in the city than if somebody’s doing art on a wall somewhere.”

B. Gnarley, a photographer who chronicles the Seattle region’s graffiti scene, is photographed at the River City SkatePark in South Park where surfaces are considered something like a “free wall” where graffiti writers are unofficially allowed to spray-paint. B. Gnarley is a pseudonym he uses to post photos of graffiti around Seattle on social media (on instagram as B.Gnarley), and in a periodic magazine highlighting street art called BGnarley Underground Arts and Culture, the eighth issue of which is being finalized now. (M. Scott Brauer for Cascade PBS) 

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