February 8, 2016 By Paul Wallin


Is it Graffiti Art or Vandalism?

Spend any time driving in Los Angeles, and you are bound to see it. Whether it is on a freeway overpass, on the side of a run-down building, or on the face of a billboard, you can find graffiti all over Southern California. Some of it is tagging to mark gang territory and some of it the result of bored teenagers looking to leave their mark on the world. But some of it is something more, as many talented graffiti artists use the walls of the city as a canvas to deliver messages. Some of these artists, such as the reclusive and mysterious British artist known as “Banksy,” have turned graffiti “bombing” into a way of expressing political messages while garnering worldwide fame for their art. Banksy was even featured by Time magazine as one of the most influential people in the world in 2010.1

The question is: When does graffiti art cross the line into vandalism?

The Crime of Vandalism in California (PC 594)

Under California Penal Code Section 594, you commit the crime of vandalism if you maliciously commit any of these acts on the property of another:

  1. Defacing the property with graffiti or other inscribed material;
  2. Damaging the property; or
  3. Destroying the property.

The key to understanding this crime is the word “maliciously.” The law defines that term as (1) intentionally committing a wrongful act, or (2) acting with the unlawful intent to annoy or injure someone else.2 This does not mean that you have to intend to break the law, but you have to intentionally act when you do any of the above acts.

Vandalism is a “wobbler” crime that can be charged as a misdemeanor or a felony. The severity of the charge is generally determined by the amount of the cost to restore the property to its previous condition. If the damage is more than $400, you could be charged with a felony.

The penalties for a first-time conviction of a misdemeanor are up to 364 days in county jail, a $1,000 fine, or both. For a felony conviction, you may face 364 days in county jail, but a fine of $10,000 (or $50,000 if the damage was greater than $10,000).

There is also a lesser crime of vandalism known as graffiti with damage less than $250 (California Penal Code sections 640.5 and 640.6). For a first-time conviction under this law, you could be fined up to $1,000 and sentenced to community service.

When Is Graffiti Art Legal?

The bottom line on determining if your graffiti art is legal is whether you have the permission of the owner of the property. It is a common site in Los Angeles for a property owner to allow someone to create a mural on the side of a building. In some cases, property owners may even hire someone to create a work of art on the wall of their buildings.

Contact Wallin & Klarich for Help

If you are facing charges of vandalism, you will need the help of an experienced criminal defense attorney to defend your rights. At Wallin & Klarich, our skilled team of attorneys has been successfully helping clients fight vandalism charges for over 40 years. We work tirelessly to fight for the best outcome possible to our clients’ cases. Let our knowledgeable attorneys help you, too.

With offices in Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Torrance, Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, West Covina and Victorville, there is a Wallin & Klarich attorney experienced in California criminal defense near you, no matter where you work or live.

Contact our offices today at (877) 4-NO-JAIL or (877) 466-5245 for a free phone consultation. We will get through this together.

1. [Will Ellsworth-Jones, “The Story Behind Banksy,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 2013, available at http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-story-behind-banksy-4310304/?no-ist.]
2. [See CALCRIM 2900: Vandalism.]

AUTHOR: Paul Wallin

Paul Wallin is one of the most highly respected attorneys in Southern California. His vast experience, zealous advocacy for his clients and extensive knowledge of many areas of the law make Mr. Wallin a premiere Southern California attorney. Mr. Wallin founded Wallin & Klarich in 1981. As the senior partner of Wallin & Klarich, Mr. Wallin has been successfully representing clients for more than 30 years. Clients come to him for help in matters involving assault and battery, drug crimes, juvenile crimes, theft, manslaughter, sex offenses, murder, violent crimes, misdemeanors and felonies. Mr. Wallin also helps clients with family law matters such as divorce and child custody.

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