Generally, graffiti is any writing, drawing, or symbol applied to any surface of private or public property without the property owner’s consent. Although graffiti is most commonly associated with spray paint, it can consist of any mark, such as carving into a public bench or drawing on the side of a house with a pen.

Graffiti is often criminalized as a form of vandalism.

What Is Vandalism?

Vandalism is a type of property crime that involves damaging or destroying the property of another. This particular crime is usually done willfully. In addition to graffiti, other forms of vandalism are:

  • Tagging: The writing of a person’s name or gang affiliation on another’s property without their permission.
  • Acquisitive vandalism: Damage or destruction done to obtain money or property, such as breaking a vending machine to get the money or the candy.
  • Sabotage: Damage or destruction of another’s property to render it unusable, such as slashing car tires, gluing locks, or arson.

What Are the Punishments for Graffiti Vandalism?

The crime of graffiti vandalism has strict punishments for those who are convicted of defacing the property of others. Vandalism can be penalized as a felony or a misdemeanor, depending on the state, monetary value of the damage, age of the defendant, and other factors such as gang association. If a person is convicted of vandalism, they could be punished with mandatory community service, fines, and/or prison time. The exact sentence often depends upon the cost of the damage inflicted.

For example, in California, if the graffiti creates more than $400 damage, then the defendant could be charged with a fine of $10,000. But if the amount of damages is less than $400, then the fine cannot be more than $1,000.

Punishments for graffiti also may vary on other factors, such as:

  • Whether the defendant has prior convictions
  • Whether the graffiti impaired public communication, transportation, and the society at large
  • Whether the property that was defaced a protected historical site 

Does It Matter If Graffiti Has Been in Place for a Long Time?

If the artwork has been in place for a significant amount of time, the defendant could have a case that a property owner cannot deface their artwork. However, the success of this claim will depend greatly on the laws of the area in which the graffiti is located.

Are There Any Defenses for a Graffiti Vandalism Charge?

There are several defenses available to someone who is charged with graffiti vandalism. The most common defenses are:

  • Mistaken Identification: The person who saw the perpetrator vandalizing the property did not have a clear view and the identification of the defendant is not reliable.
  • Owner’s Consent: The graffiti that was made on the owner’s property was authorized and consented by the property owner.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

If you are trying to defend against a vandalism charge, you may need a criminal defense lawyer to help you navigate the legal system. If you are trying to preserve your artwork you definitely need a lawyer to help you understand the relevant state statutes and cases in order to preserve your work.