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Graffiti complaints hit a 10-year high this summer. What’s the city’s response?

A sanitation worker power washes graffiti off the Mission branch of San Francisco Public Library on April 27, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Earlier today in the Lower Haight, Marc Louis plastered white paint across a roll-down security gate to cover up the graffiti tags that had accumulated on the building.

“I do this all the time,” said Louis, who works for a local property management company as a maintenance tech. “It definitely keeps me busy.”

Louis isn’t alone. This summer, San Franciscans filed more complaints about graffiti on commercial buildings than they have in over a decade. During the July peak, over 1,300 such cases were filed with the city’s 311 reporting program, according to 311 data.

Now, city officials are taking the burden of paying for constant graffiti cleanup off of the shoulders of commercial property owners, and giving maintenance workers like Louis a break. A new program, launched today, offers up city crews to abate graffiti on businesses’ buildings, free of charge.

Property owners are legally responsible for clearing graffiti from their buildings, and the city isn’t afraid to go after them if they leave tags up. Since July, public works has issued nearly 900 notices to property owners that gave them 30 days to remove graffiti from their buildings, or else face a $362 fine. If owners fail to meet that deadline, they can face additional fines climbing into the thousands of dollars.

“We do not want to penalize people, but we do want to make sure graffiti is removed quickly because we know from experience that tags attract more tags and degrade the look and feel of our neighborhoods,” said interim Public Works Director Carla Short in a statement.

A pedestrian walks past painted-over graffiti in San Francisco's Chinatown on May 18, 2022. | Camille Cohen/The Standard

Previously, local small business leaders have complained that the cleanups and fines unfairly fall upon small business tenants in tagged buildings, and that other major cities offer programs to help scrub private businesses.

In that light, Sharky Laguana, president of San Francisco’s Small Business Commission, celebrated the new program. “Not only will it save our businesses time and money cleaning up, but allowing DPW paint crews to jump into action on their behalf will result in graffiti being removed faster and more efficiently,” Laguana said in a statement.

To take advantage of a free cleanup, property owners should call the city’s 311 service, which can help connect them to Public Works. Properties that are under construction are excluded from the program, as are private homes, and Public Works will not repair tagged murals through the new service.

Supervisor Myrna Melgar championed the free cleanup program through the city’s budget process, where it was allocated $4 million and scheduled to last two years. 

Sophie Bearman contributed additional reporting for this story.
Noah Baustin can be reached at