Story and Photo by Shari Pike

Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Billings Outpost. 

The urge to leave your mark on posterity is nothing new. Archeologists have found carved graffiti in ancient Egyptian tombs. Just 31 miles from Billings at Pompeys Pillar, William Clark climbed high and engraved his name in the sandstone on July 25, 1806.

Clark’s signature is historic. The rest of us have no such claim to fame. Cole Randall scratched his name and the date on the Pillar in April 2014 and later pleaded guilty to misdemeanor vandalism, paying out $1,000 in fines and restitution of $3,400.

Mr. Randall made the same mistake as my 9-year-old nephew. When you create an illicit work of art, don’t sign your name. He got off a bit cheaper than Cole Randall. His mother made him scrub off his work and then he was grounded. Was Mr. Randall’s emotional development at the same level as a 9-year-old?

The current graffiti craze began in the U.S. in the 1970s in New York City. Two technological advances, spray paint and felt-tipped markers, made lightning quick doodles possible.

But many practitioners are serious artists, not just aimless youth. Log onto, type in “graffiti,” and a dozen online teachers pop up. Tutorials in graffiti cost from $15 to 40 per half hour.

Billings has several examples of legitimate wall art, also called public art. In April, artists primed and painted the alley walls off First Avenue North between North 30th and 31st streets. This venture was so successful that more walls are being sought.

But many people think of gang symbols when they think of graffiti. Billings is home to two prominent gangs, the Nortenos and the Surenos. The Nortenos use the sign “X4” and the color red. The Surenos prefer blue. While the names are of Spanish origin, members can be of any race or ethnic origin.

Gangs sometimes mark their territory with graffiti and may mark atop those of a rival gang. But according to Sgt. Shawn Finnegan of the Billings Police Department, they account for only about 1 percent of all graffiti.

“They’ve have been pretty quiet lately,” he said.

Quick draw artists called taggers produce most of the rest. A tag can be anything from what appears to be a meaningless scribble to attractive art. If the creator has permission to spray and paint, it’s wall art. Without permission, it’s criminal mischief, a misdemeanor.

“Their art evolves from a scribble to a very stylized version,” said Sgt. Finnegan. “Many taggers move on to large murals on rooftops and the morphs on trains.”

Becky Shay, a crime analyst for the Billings Police, said, “Taggers practice in front of the TV with paper and markers like we would knit or crochet. They’re in their late teens to early 20. Some of the most prolific taggers are in their late 20s.”

What’s the point? Why would people want to leave a mark that only they can read? Like all vandalism, it may just be anger-based.

Other taggers work in broad daylight, working so fast that they can leave their mark while walking. They get a rush from the danger, the kind of rush that a compulsive gambler seeks.

The Billings crime prevention office takes a lot of vandalism calls. Thousands of dollars a year are spent to remove the paint. The city of Billings has an ordinance that requires the property owner to remove the graffiti within 10 days after a complaint or receive a fine. This is especially hard on the elderly.

“We have a trailer with donated equipment to get rid of it immediately and there are volunteers to give assistance when needed,” said Ms. Shay.

Tanya Punt, a code enforcer for the city of Billings, said that in her four years on the job, she’s never had to issue a ticket to anyone.

“They (the property owners) usually paint over the graffiti right away,” she said.

Graffiti isn’t limited to a certain part of town, but there are favored places: The Sixth Avenue underpass, recently repainted, as well as light posts, dumpsters and utility boxes.

Railroad cars are a new venue for Billings. While there are some mindless scribbles, many cars boast large, intricate paintings, which means that the artist has spent a long time on railroad property. They’re trespassing and are liable to the company for damages if caught.

The bowls of the skate park at First Avenue South and South 27th Street are also prime targets. As fast as the city paints over it, more graffiti appears. The Galles building, kitty-corner on Minnesota Avenue, also gets a lot of attention.

True artists would prefer to have all graffiti legalized.

They like working on exterior walls because of the size of the canvas, and also because their creation is visible, gratis, to the public.

The city of Bogota, Colombia, with 8 million people, has effectively stopped fighting graffiti. While mindless scrawls still appear, the wall art is amazing. Business owners even commission grafiteros to decorate their stores.

Should Billings follow suit? Is graffiti beauty or blemish?

July 4, 2015
Deborah Courson Smith

HELENA, Mont. - The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday the costs of implementing smokestack technology to control mercury pollution should have been considered by the EPA before the agency proceeded to draft its Mercury and Air Toxics Standards.

While the ruling means the agency has to rewrite some components of the air pollution regulations, the new rules for power plants will remain in effect while a lower court reviews the case.

Anne Hedges, director of the Montana Environmental Information Center, says it won't mean much to the state because newer controls were put in place in 2010.

"It's hard to imagine that if EPA goes back and determines whether it's economic to install mercury controls on power plants, they wouldn't look at places like Montana and say, 'They did it five years ago. Of course it's economic,'" she says.

Besides mercury, the rule intends to curtail emissions of arsenic, chromium and hydrochloric acid gas.

Hedges says for plants where the new technology has not been installed yet, the court's ruling could delay implementation - and that puts people at risk. Mercury is a neurotoxin connected to heart and asthma problems.

"People all over the country are breathing air from power plants next door, and they deserve cleaner air," she says.

The EPA estimates the pollution controls will prevent about 11,000 premature deaths every year.

Legislative Roundup – Week 14

House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, (left) discusses with House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, in the House lobby April 7.

April 11, 2015

By Michael Wright

Community News Service

UM School of Journalism


Medicaid expansion clears House

After wrangling over rules, the last remaining bill to expand Medicaid at the 64th Montana Legislature appears to be headed to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 405, sponsored by Sen. Ed Buttrey, R-Great Falls, expands Medicaid to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. It accepts federal money available under the Affordable Care Act, asks some on Medicaid to pay premiums for their coverage and creates job training programs for recipients through the Department of Labor.

A House committee heard the bill early in the week and gave it a “do not pass” recommendation, meaning it couldn’t be debated on the floor unless 60 representatives voted to do so. House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, objected to that on the House floor, saying the bill was one of their “silver bullets,” referring to a deal cut at the beginning of the session that gave Democrats six chances to bring bills to the House floor with 51 votes.

Hunter sent a letter to House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, before the bill’s hearing that designated it as one of their “silver bullets,” and Hunter argued that because of the letter, the “do not pass” report was improper.

That led to a two-day rules fight that ended up going Hunter’s way. A simple majority vote blasted the bill to the House Floor with support from Democrats and moderate Republicans.

A long debate similar to the one seen at every stage of the battle ensued.

Supporters of Medicaid expansion said the bill would provide much needed coverage, offer the poorest Montanans help in getting out of poverty and keep rural hospitals open by reducing uncompensated care costs.

Rep. Frank Garner, R-Kalispell, said he supports the bill because it can help people get out of poverty, and incentivizes people to work harder. He added that the bill covers important groups of people, including veterans.

I think this is the one chance we have to try to help them,” Garner said.

Opponents argued it will cover “able-bodied childless adults” and gives them access to care over those who are supposed to be on Medicaid, the poorest of the poor.

This is a tragedy especially for the disabled poor,” Rep. Nancy Ballance, R-Hamilton said. “But also for the working poor. This bill is facilitating their dependence on government.”

The bill passed 54-42. It will now head to the governor’s desk.

Bullock vetoes another tax cut

Gov. Bullock handed down another veto on a tax cut bill last week.

Last Thursday, shortly after the full House endorsed Medicaid expansion, Bullock’s office announced his veto of Senate Bill 200, which would have cut taxes by almost $80 million over the next two years.

House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, issued a statement after the veto announcement, calling the governor “disingenuous” for not signing the bill, which Knudsen said gave significant tax relief to the middle class.

In the statement, Knudsen added that the governor has shown he “does not want to provide any relief to the hardworking men and women across this state” and only wants to “grow government and increase spending.”

Bullock said the bill didn’t provide relief proportionally to taxpayers.

The majority of it would have gone to the largest wage earners in the state,” Bullock said.

Bullock also said that after the 2013 session, he had to veto $150 million of spending to make sure the budget was structurally balanced, and that he didn’t want to do that again. The money for a tax cut would come out of the general fund revenue.

The bill, carried by Sen. Duane Ankney, R-Colstrip, cleared both Houses in March on largely party line votes.

Senate passes increased budget

After adding more than $20 million in spending, the Senate passed House Bill 2, the state budget.

The bill lines out about $4 billion in general fund spending over the next two years. With the Senate amendments, it spends about $23 million more than the version passed by the House last month.

Both senators and the governor said the budget had been much improved by the Senate.

The bill has moved itself toward a better condition at every stage of the journey,” said Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, the chair of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee that added most of the spending increases.

Improvements were certainly made on the Senate side,” Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said. But, he added there were still more things he’d like to see added to the bill.

One of the parts of his budget proposal that hasn’t been funded is the $37 million for "Early Edge," the plan to expand preschool. The program would be voluntary for both schools and students.

Sen. Brad Hamlett, D-Cascade, tried one amendment to fully fund the program, saying full discussion on the program hadn’t happened yet.

This is a priority with the administration,” Hamlett said. “And we need to have the discussion.”

Jones, who led the subcommittee that handled the education portion of the budget, opposed the amendment, saying it wasn’t proven to be completely effective and mostly helps “at-risk” students and larger school districts.

He said it would be hard for rural school districts to hire accredited preschool teachers.

I am not a supporter of this version of Early Edge,” Jones said.

The amendment failed along party lines 29-21. Hamlett brought a second amendment that would have partially funded the program, which also failed along party lines.

In addition to the $23 million added to the 2016-2017 budget, a Senate committee also added about $24 million to cover deficits in the 2014-2015 budget, usually included in a different bill that was killed by the House last month. That money will prevent furloughs in some state offices and budget shortfalls for schools.  

The bill will now go to a House and Senate conference committee to hammer out final details before it’s sent to the governor.

Bill to increase public access gets easy hearing in the House

A bill expanding a program to pay landowners for allowing recreational access to state lands blocked by their private land got an easy hearing in the House last week, with no opposition.

Senate Bill 309, carried by Sen. Jedediah Hinkle, R-Bozeman, expands a program that gave landowners a $500 tax credit for providing access to state lands. Only two people signed up for the credit. Hinkle’s bill would include federal lands and bumps the credit to $750.

Hinkle said that although several landowners already provide access, this would incentivize more of them to do so.

Wildlife and agriculture groups supported the bill, as did Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. No one opposed the bill at the hearing.

Last month it sailed through the Senate with a 44-6 vote.

- Michael Wright is a reporter for the Community News Service at the University of Montana School of Journalism. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..  Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.