The District sets aside about $406,000 annually to remove graffiti, but officials have dedicated a separate budget of $100,000 to a 5-year-old project encouraging constructive creations in areas often targeted by taggers.
Murals produced under the MuralsDC program have appeared on schools, buildings and businesses — even the famed Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street Northwest — and they deter vandalism.
"It's not just giving someone else the opportunity to tag," said Nancee Lyons, spokeswoman for the District's Department of Public Works, which oversees graffiti removal. "It's like edgy, public art and it's becoming more and more popular across the country and abroad. There's a resurgence in this old school hip-hop style."
The artists are paid and work with apprentices. A wall can cost the city between $2,500 and $20,000.
"There are a lot of people who are artists but have never spray-painted a building," Ms. Lyons said. "We have a few artists who we work with repetitively. They're good at what they do."
The District isn't the only city to use a murals program as both a deterrent and educational opportunity. Baltimore promotes a similar program, and in Philadelphia, the nation's largest mural program has been painting the city for 28 years.
Designed by the city's mayor at the time, the idea was that when graffiti writers were apprehended, rather than being sentenced to serve jail time they would be sentenced to community service hours with the program, said Amy Johnston, spokeswoman for the Mural Arts Program in Philadelphia.
"They were removing graffiti, learning about art and working toward a full-time paying position with the city of Philadelphia," she said.
Since then, more than 3,600 murals have been painted around the city. Ms. Johnston said graffiti now tends to be more "nuisance" tags, such as painting on street signs, and some property owners have even donated their walls to the mural program because they like that artistic style.
"If a mural is coming to your neighborhood, you know about it," she said. "There's a community meeting to talk about the project in general, who the artist is going to be and the message. It's a pretty lengthy process and part of the reason why we take such time and care with it. We want to make sure the work will be welcomed, taken care of, and everyone feels their voice is being heard." One business that partnered with MuralsDC is Dance Place, which had a mural painted along one of its walls last year.
The dance school occupies a faded brick building in the 3200 block of Eighth Street Northeast. Dance Place spokeswoman Carolyn Kamrath said the school wasn't having a graffiti problem on its wall, but "all the buildings on our street, the back ends face Metro tracks and you have an assortment of graffiti."
The artist for that particular project spearheaded the mural's design, Ms. Kamrath said, and "she looked at all the different things we do, and taking that into account."
The project took several weeks because of bad weather, but that made it all the more interesting to watch the separate stages of painting, Ms. Kamrath said.
Along one of its walls is a vibrant mural depicting men and women dancing a variety of styles under the words of author Walt Whitman "I dance with the dancers."
"A lot of people stop to take a look at it," Ms. Kamrath said. "It's right on the Metropolitan Branch Trail, so bikers pause to check it out. It represents the whole variety of genres of dance, which is really important to Dance Place."
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