Taking Back the Streets? How Street Art Ordinances Constitute Government TakingsSheldon A. EvansARTICLE - Fordham Intellectual Property, Media & Entertainment Law Journal
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Taking Back the Streets? How Street Art Ordinances Constitute Government Takings
Sheldon A. Evans

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As street art continues to fuel a generation of counterculture and gains popularity in pop culture, laws enacted by local governments to curb this art form raise interesting constitutional issues surrounding the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause. More and more cities across America are classifying street art and graffiti as public nuisances. Such municipalities impose their agenda on private property owners with street art ordinances. These laws allow the government to come onto private property to remove the street art; some laws go even further by requiring the property owner to remove the street art at his own cost. This Article attempts to make sense of the Takings Clause’s tumultuous doctrines and their underlying principles in order to analyze this anti-street art campaign. In the process, this Article analyzes whether street art ordinances constitute takings under the Fifth Amendment due to their potential negative economic impact on property values and the temporary deprivation of essential property rights.





s a property owner, discovering graffiti on your property can be like discovering a latent liability or striking oil. Without your consent, some member of the counterculture has used your pristine building, wall, or other surface as a canvas to forward their artistic agenda. To add insult to injury, they have left you to clean up the mess. Further, the city in which you live has specific laws that require the following: either you paint over the graffiti at your own cost or give consent to city workers to do the same. As a property owner with legitimate interests in your property value, removal of such blight in the usual case could not come sooner. But what if this graffiti was more than the product of rival gangs marking their territory; what if it was more than artistic teenagers seeking a thrill; what if it was more than underground artists trying to make a name for themselves? What if, instead, it was the stencil of an unassuming rat,1 of two lovers,2 or even a girl on a swing?3 In that case, as this Article endeavors to demonstrate, everything changes due to the constitutional calculus and the economic rights of the property owner.


Street art, as such public displays of uncommissioned art are commonly referred to, is becoming more of a common social phenomena in urban centers. This is so much the case that many American cities have gone to extreme lengths to adopt strict laws and penalties to curb street artists. Such laws, however, not only seek to punish the artist but also the owner of the canvas; these street art ordinances impose stiff penalties on property owners who do not take appropriate steps to remove street art from their property. These laws affect property owners’ rights to exclude others from the property, to benefit from improvements to their property, and to manage and enjoy their property as they see fit. The loss of such important property rights elicits interesting constitutional issues under the Fifth Amendment’s Takings Clause.4 After all, private ownership of property (and the rights that accompany such ownership) has been described from the beginning of the Union as among the most important and fundamental virtues necessary to build a free society.5 Further, in a day and age when street art is enjoying immense popularity as an art form, the imposition of the state upon a property owner to remove street art can actually dam- age the value of his property.


This Article argues that such street art ordinances—without built-in judicial oversight or proper means of administrative challenges—should constitute a government taking pursuant to the Takings Clause. This Article forwards its argument in six parts. Part I introduces street art, its definition, and its culture. Upon in- vestigation, it becomes apparent that this art form has gained trac- tion in popular culture, which has created a market demand that can benefit property owners. Part II lays out the conflicting ideolo- gy of the rule of law in many major metropolitan areas, with a par- ticular focus on Los Angeles’s anti-graffiti scheme. Many city gov- ernments across the United States continue to classify street art as a public nuisance that harms the community. After these ordinanc- es are introduced, Part III continues by outlining the constitutional backdrop. Making sense of this body of law is no small feat, and this Article attempts to clarify conflicting doctrines by analyzing the Supreme Court’s underlying principles in applying the Takings Clause. Next, Part IV analyzes the constitutionality of street art ordinances and whether the forced removal of potentially valuable street art is an unconstitutional taking. Ultimately, this Article ar- gues that street art ordinances can constitute unconstitutional tak- ings, and proposes solutions to remedy this problem. This Article concludes with a brief summary of unconstitutional street art ordinances and the hope that legal scholarship will further explore this issue.



* B.A., University of Southern California, 2008; J.D., University of Chicago, 2012.




  1. See Deborah Vankin, Banksy’s Haight Street Rat Scampers Down to U.S. Bank Tower in L.A., L.A. Times (Sept. 24, 2014, 4:42 PM), http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-banksy-haight-street-rat-us-bank-tower-los-angeles-20140924-story.html [http://perma.cc/DN6F-89MZ] (highlighting Banksy’s rat stencil in Los Angeles).

  2. See Banksy Artwork Saves Youth Club as it Sells for £400k, Telegraph (Aug. 27,2014, 3:51 PM), http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/11059481/Banksy-artwork-saves-youth-club-as-it-sells-for-400k.html [http://perma.cc/2ZR6-NA55] (highlighting Banksy stencil “MobileLovers”).

  3. See Andrian Glick Kudler, Some LA Street Art Worth $650K, Some Worth Felony Charges, Curbed Los Angeles (Apr. 9, 2014), http://la.curbed.com/archives/2014/04/in_los_angeles_some_street_art_is_worth_650k_and_some_is_worth_felony_charges.php [http://perma.cc/8XXK-HDQL] (highlighting Banksy stencil of a girl on a swing in a Los Angeles parking lot).

  4. See U.S. Const. amend. V.

  5. See James W. Ely, Jr., “That due satisfaction may be made:” the Fifth Amendment and the Origins of the Compensation Principle, 36 Am. J. Legal Hist. 1, 1 (1992) (“[T]he notion that property ownership was essential for the enjoyment of liberty has long been a fundamental tenet of Anglo-American constitutional thought.” (citing John Phillip Reid, Constitutional History Of The American Revolution: The Authority Of Rights 27–33 (1986))); see also Cameron Madigan, Taking for Any Purpose?, 9 Hastings W.-Nw J. Envtl. L. & Pol’Y 179 (2002–2003) (quoting John Adams: “Property must be secured or liberty cannot exist.” (citation omitted)).

Article by

Sheldon A. Evans*

Vol 25 Book 3

25 <span style="font-variant: small-caps;">Fordham Intell. Prop. Media & Ent. L.J.</span> 685

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