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Understanding graffiti and how it’s a criminal offense

On Behalf of | Oct 20, 2023 | Criminal Defense |

Although graffiti as an art form has a distinctive and influential style, there’s no denying that it’s also illegal to deface another person’s property. Cities can spend tens of thousands of dollars annually trying to clean up graffiti, so no matter how artistic a piece of graffiti would be, it’s a crime if the artist didn’t ask for permission.

In California, graffiti falls under its definition of vandalism, which is a criminal offense. But what does the state consider illegal regarding street art, and what are the penalties?

Graffiti is vandalism

Per state law, a person who maliciously defaces with graffiti, damages or destroys any real or personal property that is not their own commits the crime of vandalism. There’s no limit to the type of property or item vandalized, so it’s a crime to inscribe graffiti on vehicles, signage, fixtures and furnishings apart from walls.

The penalties for a vandalism conviction depend on the amount of defacement or damage caused:

  • Amount of defacement less than $400: On conviction, the person faces up to a year in prison and as much as $1,000 in fines.
  • Amount of defacement costs $400 or more: The offense is a felony, which carries up to a year of prison time and as much as $10,000 in fines.
  • Amount of defacement worth $10,000 or more: A felony offense of this nature also leads to up to a year in prison, but the convicted must also pay as much as $50,000 in fines.

If the amount of defacement was less than $400 and the accused person had a previous vandalism conviction, a subsequent conviction will lead to up to a year in prison and a maximum fine of $5,000.

On top of these penalties, a court may order the convicted to clean up or repair the defaced property by themselves. The court may also order the convicted (or their guardians, if they’re underage) to keep the property free of graffiti for up to a year, per law.

Possessing aerosol paint as a minor is also illegal

California also has laws prohibiting persons under 18 from possessing cans of aerosol paint or etching cream to deface property. Violating this law is a misdemeanor, and a conviction can lead to a court order for the minor to perform community service or graffiti removal for up to 90 days on their first offense.

While graffiti is an influential art style, it’s still considered vandalism in the eyes of California law. Those accused of vandalism could also face felony charges, which remain on a person’s criminal record. Vandalism charges shouldn’t be underestimated, and those accused of illegal graffiti should consider their legal options or face the consequences of a felony conviction.