Are Oakland's Gnomes Art or Unlawful Graffiti?

By Deanne Katz, Esq. on January 31, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

There's a fine line between art and graffiti. But for now, at least, the painted gnomes that have popped up around town in Oakland, California, have squeaked by on the "art" side of the line.

Original Banksy's they are not, but the gnomes -- more than 2,000 of them -- are appearing on utility poles in several Oakland neighborhoods. The depictions of a cute, chubby gnome with blue clothes, a red hat, a white beard, and brown shoes are painted onto 6-inch blocks of wood and then screwed into place.

Unfortunately, no one asked local utility company about putting the artwork on the poles. The company was planning to remove them until the community spoke up.

The artwork is by definition graffiti, which is any inscription or defacement on property that is not your own. But the little men have added a lot of character to the city's streets, and many residents wanted them to stay, reports the San Francisco Chronicle.

PG&E would be within its right to remove the gnome paintings, since they're affixed to utility poles. While those poles provide the public with power, they're technically private property.

By putting up the artwork, despite its cuteness, the artist is committing a crime. If the paintings weren't so well-loved, criminal charges for vandalism or at least a civil lawsuit for defacing property would be possible.

But community support for the gnomes made PG&E reconsider removing them.

A representative for the company met with the artist, whose identity remains secret, and with a member of the City Council to try reach an agreement. By the end of the meeting they'd agreed to let the gnomes stay, for now.

But PG&;E isn't going to let them stick around forever, reports the San Jose Mercury News. There's a concern that allowing them to stay will encourage other, non-gnomic graffiti. That could harm the poles or make it difficult for workers to access necessary equipment.

Once the gnomes have a new home, they'll have to go. But for now the quirky art will remain on Oakland's utility poles -- right where residents want them.

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