OAKLAND — Property owners in the heavily tagged areas of Oakland can pay a hefty tab to keep their buildings graffiti-free. Vandals keep coming back, and nothing is off limits.

Not even churches are left untouched. Graffiti abatement also costs the city of Oakland more than $1 million a year, and property owners who fail to clean their buildings can face fines from the city. The seemingly endless cycle leaves them feeling helpless.

“I stopped repainting because they come back,” said Don Chan, manager of an auto body shop off E.12th Street in the San Antonio neighborhood. “Because the law is not serious. Why can’t they catch them? I don’t think the city punishes the people.

Council member Pat Kernighan, left, with volunteers and fellow community members get busy rolling paint over graffiti on the corner of International
Council member Pat Kernighan, left, with volunteers and fellow community members get busy rolling paint over graffiti on the corner of International Boulevard and 12th Avenue in the San Antonio District in Oakland, Calif., on Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. Community leaders and volunteers gathered for "Clean Sweep II" event abating graffiti in a 4 block radius.(Laura A. Oda/Bay Area News Group)

That might change if Ken Houston, chairman of the East Oakland Beautification Council, has his way.

“The graffiti has to stop. It’s destroying our city,” Houston said.

“The city is not doing its job. They’re calling shots from behind desks. You got to be touching the ground.”

The Alameda County district attorney’s office, along with the Oakland City Attorney and Oakland Police Department, is trying to do something.

“We’re going to look at all issues of blight if it’s illegal dumping or vandalism of any sort, obviously that will include graffiti,” said District Attorney spokeswoman Teresa Drenick. “We are committed to charging the cases that we can prove beyond a reasonable doubt.


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Houston said his group is documenting graffiti tags as evidence for the District Attorney. Councilmember Pat Kernighan, who is not seeking re-election, asked Houston to tackle the graffiti in her council district after noting the success the group’s efforts in May along a 2.25-mile stretch on San Leandro Street.

That East Oakland corridor, which is now closely monitored, from the Oakland and San Leandro city border to Coliseum BART station is seeing a low return of graffiti and is expected to have even less with the second phase of its cleanup next week.

“I said, ’OK, I want to know how he’s doing it,’ ” Kernighan said as she took pictures with Houston, a mayoral candidate, and Dana King, who is vying to replace Kernighan. “It’s really hard to catch people in the act, but the community itself also has a responsibility to keep their buildings clean.”

Although few residents showed up to help, Kernighan said she hopes that efforts to clean the graffiti in her district will show frustrated property owners that they can do something to curb rampant graffiti themselves.

The first step of the beautification council’s process is defining a strict area and quickly painting over graffiti without worrying about matching colors or other aesthetic details, Houston said. After making a point about zero tolerance, he and his crew return for a more detailed cleanup. Then, they provide property owners with the tools necessary for maintaining the area themselves.

Last year, the City Council passed a law that criminalized tagging while approving $400,000 to fund mural projects.(Oakland is basking in mural renaissance, and the walls of vibrant color have become points of neighborhood pride. Desi Mundo, founder of the Community Rejuvenation Project, a muralist collective, said that murals discourage tagging and provide a creative canvas rather than a criminal sentencing.

“We can criminalize the youth or we can give them some civic ownership of the spaces where they reside,” he said. “In the most powerful situations, murals speak to the community. They can tell its history, share its heroes and stories. So people respect that.”