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Graffiti along I-5 becoming ‘extreme sport’ among vandals

Graffiti has been a problem along I-5 for a long time, but is it getting worse?

Homer Simpson graffiti popping up around Seattle
City forces property owners, not taggers, to clean up graffiti

I have been driving I-5 between Seattle and Snohomish County for 15 years, and have noticed an uptick in graffiti along the sound barriers and signs. To my eye and to our listener’s eyes, the problem has gotten worse, but that’s just an impression.

The Washington State Department of Transportation doesn’t track the number of tags, so it can’t say for sure if the problem is getting worse. It just knows that someone has to go out and clean it up.

“It’s not something we want to go out and keep doing,” said WSDOT’s Bart Treece. “This is stuff our maintenance staff has to go cover up. That takes them away from other things that they could be doing.”

Treece described it as vandalism, and it needs to stop.

“It’s not something we want to see on taxpayer structures,” Treece said. “That’s something that everyone pays into, and now we all have to see it.”

Some of the tags can only be accessed by climbing through dense vegetation or climbing overhanging freeway signs.

“It’s like an extreme sport for whomever is going out there and defacing it, and they take risks our crews can’t,” Treece said. “For some areas that are hard to reach, I may require us closing lanes on the highway to cover it up, and that’s no easy task. That costs a lot of money and crew time and equipment.”

It’s the tags on overhanging signs that really scares WSDOT and emergency responders.

Homes vandalized with graffiti in Seattle’s Madison Valley

“Some of it is over live traffic, and if something were to happen, they could not only hurt themselves but hurt people who are just traveling through,” Treece said.

Washington State Patrol is responsible for watching for these vandals, but investing time on taggers is further down the priority list. Troopers will respond if they see something, but taggers are hard to catch and very few are ever prosecuted.

The Seattle Police Department has a dedicated detective pursuing vandalism in the city. That detective, who wishes to remain unnamed for this story, believes the state should replace those overhanging signs. Many of them are just too easy to climb.

WSDOT has added barriers to prevent taggers from getting to the top of the signs, but Treece said there’s only so much money it can put toward the effort.

“We could spend a lot of money and try to build up and prevent people from tagging a structure, but the real solution here is for people to not deface taxpayer property, period,” he said.

Some KIRO Radio listeners have suggested that the tags along I-5 have increased because of homeless camps. A lot of the tags are nearby, but WSDOT hasn’t found a correlation between the two.

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