Graffiti art victory

ACLU successfully challenges Atlanta's anti-graffiti ordinance

The city of Atlanta is now a safe place for property owners who appreciate graffiti art.

The Georgia ACLU and the city of Atlanta have reached a settlement in a year-long constitutional challenge to the city's anti-graffiti ordinance. The agreement does away with penalties for property owners who commission murals for their buildings or who don't do enough to remove unwanted graffiti, but retains penalties for vandals who perform illegal tagging. The settlement also creates a new program using inmates to help clean up graffiti throughout the city.

Gerry Weber, legal director of the Georgia ACLU, considers the settlement a good compromise.

"The big problem with the graffiti ordinance was that it made the citizen a criminal when they put up art on their own property," Weber says. "This protects property owners' rights."

In 2003, the city established an ordinance making it a crime for property owners to paint murals on their buildings without city approval. Many people who lived in or owned buildings with existing graffiti or murals were sent notices from the city instructing them to remove the artwork or apply for a permit. Failure to remove the graffiti carried a fine of up to $1,000.

City Councilman H. Lamar Willis, who proposed the graffiti ordinance in 2003, said at the time that he was modeling it after a law introduced in New York City by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

In 2004, the ACLU filed suit on behalf of Don Bender, a commercial property owner who has commissioned murals for several of his buildings. The ACLU argued that the ordinance was a violation of artists' free speech and of due process.

Bender, who owns buildings in Little Five Points, East Atlanta and Oakhurst Village, says he doesn't have any great love for graffiti — at least the noncommissioned kind. But he does think property owners shouldn't be held responsible for other people's vandalism.

Local graffiti artist Totem, who has painted some of the city's most prominent murals, including one near the Georgia Aquarium at Lucky and Jones streets, says the new law is more equitable.

"I feel bad for the mom-and-pop stores that have to pay fines when they have those few tags on their buildings," Totem says. "Say you get your building tagged up a lot. It costs $20 to get paint mixed up, and that is going to add up."

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