Cleaning graffiti along our highways is a busy, dirty job

Four state workers spend 16 hours every week removing graffiti in King and Snohomish counties.

EVERETT — You’re driving along I-5 from parts north, heading south. You go over the Snohomish River bridge, wind through Everett, where views of the Snohomish River valley peek through. Then the scenery opens up to overpasses and sound walls occasionally tagged with graffiti.

It caught the attention of reader Robert Nacke of Everett, who asked us what was going on after he saw it with seemingly increased frequency. If it’s on an overpass, underpass or a sound wall along a state highway or freeway, the responsibility probably falls to the Washington State Department of Transportation.

Cleaning graffiti has become an intensive effort for four maintenance workers around King and Snohomish counties, said WSDOT spokesman Thomas Charlson. For the past 20 years, two pairs of maintenance workers spend an average of 16 hours a week clearing graffiti from state property.

“Last October, we completed an extra push to get ahead of graffiti removal and had three crews out covering graffiti with paint over the course of five weeks,” Charlson said. “We also had crews cleaning graffiti on signs using lacquer thinners and installing graffiti guards to prevent people from climbing on the overhead signs and tagging them.”

In Snohomish County this year, he said, the graffiti removal tab has reached $38,463. Last year the cost was $10,120. Funding comes from the department’s regular maintenance budget.

The Revised Code of Washington states that a person is guilty of malicious mischief in the third degree if they write, paint or draw “any inscription, figure or mark of any type on any public or private building or other structure … unless the person has obtained express permission of the owner or operator of the property …”

Graffiti cleanup isn’t a responsibility of law enforcement, so when a tag comes to WSDOT’s attention, a crew is tasked with getting rid of it. The reason for the persistence is that graffiti can obscure signage and become a distraction, Charlson said.

“If the graffiti is offensive or disturbing to the traveling public, we make it a priority to get it cleaned up right away,” he said.

Some cities make graffiti removal the responsibility of property owners.

Anyone interested in taking it upon themselves to remove the paint can do so through the Adopt-a-Highway program. But graffiti in tough-to-reach locations, such as an overpass or the back of a highway sign — locations that require ladders, man lifts or traffic control, for example — would preclude volunteer work.

Nacke, who is no fan of the markings, said limiting spray can sales could curb the illicit activity.

“I’m not an advocate for taxes but maybe (sales) of spray cans should have an additional tax to add leverage directly to law enforcing and also help with the cleaning of trash/graffiti,” he wrote.

People who spot graffiti can report it online at, email or call 360-705-7000.

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