Is graffiti illegal? What California Penal Code 594 says about vandalism.

Is graffiti illegal? What California Penal Code 594 says about vandalism.

Quick Summary: Graffiti used to be a popular pastime among juvenile delinquents and gang members. Today, it is widely accepted as a form of art. This increased popularity has led to a lot of legal misunderstandings around graffiti.

Table of Contents:

Welcome to EZ Record Clean’s California Law course. We designed this course to clear up any confusion around the California Legal System. In each article, we dive deep into each Penal Code, explaining all legal details in a clear, retainable way. 

Today, I explain the law around graffiti and vandalism. Is graffiti illegal? Is it a form of vandalism? What are the penalties for vandalism? Get the answers to all your questions below.

is graffiti illegal?

Is graffiti illegal?

Once exclusive to juvenile delinquents and gangs, graffiti has become a popular form of art. Some artists are even using graffiti as their preferred medium. Most notably, the notorious “Banksy” has risen to fame through his graffiti art. But is it legal?

According to California laws, graffiti is only legal when the property owner gives permission. If you didn’t get the owner’s permission, you committed vandalism.

As a graffiti enthusiast, practice on your personal property or get permission. Do not spray paint anything without the owner’s complete permission. Vandalism is punishable by up to 3 years in jail with a $50,000 fine.

The details of Penal Code 594

Penal Code 594 is California’s state law that defines and protects against vandalism. In this section, I explain this law without legal jargon. I keep it simple, easy to read, and easy to retain.

First, let’s go over some legal terms found in this Penal Code:

  • Vandalismmaliciously defacing, damaging, or destroying another person’s property
  • Real Propertyincludes land and anything attached to it (home, garage, etc.)
  • Personal Propertyincludes anything not defined as real property (furniture, car, etc.)
  • Defacingjust another word for graffiti
  • Adjudicationa process that aims to resolve disputes between two or more parties

The first section defines vandalism:

Every person who maliciously commits any of the following acts with respect to any real or personal property not his or her own, in cases other than those specified by state law, is guilty of vandalism: defaces with graffiti or other inscribed material, damages, destroys.

Whenever a person violates this subdivision with respect to real property, vehicles, signs, fixtures, furnishings, or property belongings to any public entity, as defined by Section 811.2 of the Government Code, or the federal government, it shall be a permissive inference that the person neither owned the property nor had the permission of the owner to deface, damage, or destroy the property. 

Under California law, vandalism is maliciously defacing, damaging, or destroying another person’s real or personal property. Let’s break this down.

First, you must have acted maliciously. This means you intentionally did a wrongful act. If you damaged property accidentally, you are not guilty of California’s vandalism.

*Note: You can still act maliciously without intending to break the law. Whether you knew the law or not, if you acted maliciously, it was vandalism.

Next, you must have defaced, damaged, or destroyed property. Defacing is just another word for graffiti, whereas damaging or destroying is essentially anything else. The law defines defacing, or graffiti, below: 

(e) As used in this section, the term “graffiti or other inscribed material” includes any unauthorized inscription, word, figure, mark, or design, that is written, marked, etched, scratched, drawn, or painted on real or personal property.

If you used any kind of tool to write or draw on someone’s property, that was defacing. This is considered vandalism and, if convicted, you could face jail time.

Damaging or destroying a property could include:

  • Breaking a window
  • Egging a house
  • Salting lawns
  • Arson
  • Ransacking
  • Flooding a house

Lastly, PC 549 states that the damage must be to another person’s real or personal property. Real property is anything attached to the property. This could include a house, garage, or other building. Personal property is anything that isn’t real property. This could include furniture, vehicles, or glass china. 

Vandalism also covers public and co-owned property as well. If you spray painted a park bench, you will likely be convicted of vandalism. If you and your spouse own a house, and you damage the tv during a fight, you could be prosecuted.

punishments for violating California vandalism laws

Punishments for violating Penal Code 594

The next sections of Penal Code 594 explain the punishments for vandalism convictions. Due to the popularity and common recurrence of graffiti, the punishments are very detailed.

(b)(1) If the amount of defacement, damage, or destruction is four hundred dollars ($400) or more, vandalism is punishable by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 or in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by a fine of not more than ten thousand dollars ($10,000), or if the amount of defacement, damage, or destruction is ten thousand dollars ($10,000) or more, by a fine of not more than fifty thousand dollars ($50,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment.

(2)(A) If the amount of defacement, damage, or destruction is less than four hundred dollars ($400), vandalism is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding one year, or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment.

(B) If the amount of defacement, damage, or destruction is less than four hundred dollars ($400), and the defendant has been previously convicted of vandalism or affixing graffiti or other inscribed material under Section 594, 594.3, 594.4, 640.5, 640.6, or 640.7, vandalism is punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for not more than one year, or by a fine of not more than five thousand dollars ($5,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment.

As described above, punishments are typically based on the cost of damages. Legal penalties are usually harsher on damages exceeding $400. In these circumstances, the act becomes a wobbler offense.

A wobbler offense means the prosecutor can choose to charge a misdemeanor or a felony. Keep in mind, if you damaged multiple properties at one time, the damages will be totaled together.

For example: if you spray painted 5 different buildings in one night, each costing $100, this was a wobbler offense. The total ($500) of all damages will be used against you.

California vandalism and certain theft laws are similar in that they both have penalties based on the value of damages or items stolen. The most common penalties for vandalism are as follows:

Misdemeanor – Less than $400

If the damages totaled less than $400, you will likely be convicted of a misdemeanor. In this case, you face up to 1 year in county jail with a max fine of $1,000. However, if this isn’t your first vandalism conviction, you face up to $5,000.

Wobbler Offenses – Greater than $400

If the damages totaled more than $400, it was a wobbler offense. The prosecutor’s decision on charging as a misdemeanor or felony is usually based on the circumstances of the case.

The only difference between a wobbler misdemeanor and a normal misdemeanor is the max fine. With a wobbler offense, the max fine could be up to $10,000. This number could increase to $50,000 if the damages were over $10,000.

If convicted of a felony, you could face up to 1 year in county jail or 3 years in prison. The max fine for felonies and wobbler misdemeanors are the same. 

*If you have been previously convicted of vandalism on at least 2 occasions - and were incarcerated for at least one - you must serve a jail or prison sentence on your current case. 

The next section goes into more detail on penalties applicable to all convictions, whether felony or not. 

(c) Upon conviction of any person under this section for acts of vandalism consisting of defacing property with graffiti or other inscribed materials, the court shall, when appropriate and feasible, in addition to any punishment imposed under subdivision (b), order the defendant to clean up, repair, or replace the damaged property himself or herself, or order the defendant, and his or her parents or guardians if the defendant is a minor, to keep the damaged property or another specified property in the community free of graffiti for up to one year. Participation of a parent or guardian is not required under this subdivision if the court deems this participation to be detrimental to the defendant, or if the parent or guardian is a single parent who must care for young children. If the court finds that graffiti cleanup is inappropriate, the court shall consider other types of community service, where feasible.

(d) If a minor is personally unable to pay a fine levied for acts prohibited by this section, the parent of that minor shall be liable for payment of the fine. A court may waive payment of the fine, or any part thereof, by the parent upon a finding of good cause.

(f) The court may order any person ordered to perform community service or graffiti removal pursuant to paragraph (1) of subdivision (c) to undergo counseling.

Vandalism could result in the suspension of your driver’s license for up to 2 years. If you are younger and haven’t received your license, you could be delayed eligibility for up to 3 years.

Other common punishments include different forms of counseling or community service. An example would be keeping a property in your community graffiti-free for up to 1 year.

*Keep in mind that just because a prosecutor is charging you with a felony, doesn’t mean you will be convicted of a felony. They will first have to prove you are deserving of this conviction.

Those are the only punishments defined under PC 594. However, there are additional options under Penal Codes 640.5 and 640.6:

Infraction – Less than $250

If the vandalism was for defacing property and the cost of the repair was under $250, the prosecutor can choose to charge as an infraction1 instead. Penal Codes 640.5 and 640.6 are California’s graffiti laws. Punishments under these laws are less harsh compared to those under Penal Code 594. However, it is completely up to the prosecutor to choose this path or not.

The potential penalty under these codes depends on whether this is your first, second, or third conviction. Punishments are detailed as follows:

(a) (1) Any person who defaces with graffiti or other inscribed material the interior or exterior of the facilities or vehicles of a governmental entity, as defined by Section 811.2 of the Government Code, or the interior or exterior of the facilities or vehicles of a public transportation system as defined by Section 99211 of the Public Utilities Code, or the interior or exterior of the facilities of or vehicles operated by entities subsidized by the Department of Transportation or the interior or exterior of any leased or rented facilities or vehicles for which any of the above entities incur costs of less than two hundred fifty dollars ($250) for cleanup, repair, or replacement is guilty of an infraction, punishable by a fine not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000) and by a minimum of 48 hours of community service for a total time not to exceed 200 hours over a period not to exceed 180 days, during a time other than his or her hours of school attendance or employment. This subdivision does not preclude application of Section 594.

If this is your first conviction, the offense will be an infraction. This includes a max fine of $1,000 and possible community service. A second conviction is considered a misdemeanor. Although, under these Penal Codes, you will only face up to 6 months in jail and a $2,000 fine.

There is no possibility of a felony under PC 640.6 and PC 640.6. However, if you have at least two previous vandalism convictions and were sentenced to jail or granted probation for at least one, the penalties are worse. In this case, you face up to 1 year in county jail with a $3,000 fine.

juvenile penalties for vandalism charges

Juvenile Penalties

Juvenile penalties are applicable to anyone under the age of 18. Juveniles are treated differently than adults. If you are under the age of 18 and are being convicted of vandalism, you will go through the juvenile justice system. This is less harsh than the criminal justice system.

In juvenile cases, the prosecutor is typically more understanding. There are generally only three ways your case could end: dropped charges, informal adjudication2, or formal charges.

The best outcome is dropped charges. This is when the prosecutor drops all charges against you. This is more likely to happen if you are really young or a first-time offender.

Another possibility is the prosecutor agreeing to an informal end to the case. This can include community service, informal probation, or other requirements. If you complete all required tasks, the court will dismiss your charges.

Formal charges are the harshest outcome. The prosecutor initiates a formal juvenile adjudication3. Similar to an adult criminal trial, the judge determines if you are guilty. Then, you’ll be required to pay a fine, get counseling, serve probation, repay the property owner, or stay in a detention center.

And the punishments don’t stop there. Some penalties might be inflicted on the parents as well. For instance, if the child can’t pay the fine, the parents will be required to step in and cover the costs. If the child can’t get transportation to community service, the parents will be required to provide transportation.

The responsibility for property owners

When you own a building, you are in control of how it is decorated. However, properties built in a public space must adhere to certain rules and responsibilities. These responsibilities vary depending on which city you live in.

For instance, a responsibility of San Francisco residents is cleaning up graffiti that occurs on their property. If their property has been defaced with graffiti, they must clean it or they could get fined at least $500. 

But why should they be punished for the actions of others? The city cites the Broken Window Theory. This theory states: if you don’t fix a broken window and you allow people to get away with minor crimes, people will feel less safe and violent crimes will be more likely. 

The city feels it is important to keep a clean city that doesn’t reward and grant the ability to vandalize. Since it is uncommon to catch the person who paints the graffiti, it becomes the property owners’ responsibility. 

Copyright Rules

If you have received permission to paint art on a public wall, you get the rights to whatever you create. Artists own the copyright to their artwork. Even if you sell the original, you still own the copyright. However, the copyright can be sold separately.

Others are required to get permission from you before using your art on t-shirts, in movies, or in any way that might make money. 

copyright laws around art

Examples of graffiti and vandalism

The legal descriptions of graffiti and vandalism are actually very general. It is important to know that they do not just apply to neighborhood kids egging a house. Examples of graffiti and vandalism include:

  • Breaking home decorations during a fight with your spouse
  • Keying the car of your ex as an act of revenge for something they did to you
  • Writing your name in spray paint on the side of a building

Other types of California vandalism

Penal Code 594 isn’t the only vandalism law in California. There are additional vandalism statutes that based punishments on the type of vandalism that took place. See below:

Vandalizing Place of Worship – PC 594.3

Vandalizing a place of worship is considered a wobbler offense, regardless of the costs to repair damages. If convicted of a misdemeanor, you will face up to 1 year in jail and a $1,000 fine. A felony can grant you up to 3 years in prison with a $10,000 fine.

However, if vandalism is considered a hate crime, you face automatic felony sentencing. A hate crime is the act of intentionally intimidating or scaring a victim based on religious beliefs. 

A similar law is PC 594.3, which penalizes acts of vandalism at a cemetery or mortuary. 

Vandalism Involving Caustic Chemicals – PC 594.4

A caustic chemical is a corrosive substance that will damage or destroy other substances it touches. Committing vandalism with noxious chemicals, like butyric acid, results in a wobbler offense.

A misdemeanor lands you up to 6 months in county jail while a felony could be up to 3 years in state prison. Either conviction subjects you to a max fine of $50,000 depending on the amount of damage.

Vandalism on or near a Highway or Freeway – PC 640.7 and 540.8

Penal Codes 640.7 and 540.8 law out penalties for acts of vandalism on or near a highway or freeway. Penalties depend on how many times you’ve been convicted and which road you were near.

If you were near a highway, you will get a $1,000 fine. A first conviction will be up to 6 months in jail while following convictions will be up to 1 year. If you were near a freeway, it is up to a $5,000 fine.

Counseling a community service will likely be required as well.

related vandalism crimes

Related crimes that can be charged in addition to vandalism

Keep in mind that when you vandalize a property, you likely broke other laws as well. Other crimes that can be charged in connection with vandalism include:

Trespassing – PC 602

Penal Code 602 prohibits entering another person’s property without the right to do so. If you are on another person’s property when you violated California’s vandalism law – prosecutors can charge you for both offenses. California trespass is typically, but not always, a misdemeanor.

Burglary – PC 459

This law prohibits entering another person’s property with the intent of committing theft. If prosecutors believe you entered the building to steal, they can charge you with both vandalism and burglary

Burglary of an inhabited house is a felony that carries a state prison term of up to 6 years. Burglary of an uninhabited house is a wobbler offense. 

Arson – PC 451

Arson laws prohibit maliciously setting fire to another person’s or, in some cases, your own property. If prosecutors charge you with arson, they may also charge you with damaging or destroying that same property under California vandalism laws.

Malicious arson is a felony. Penalties depend on type or property, if there were injuries, and if you set the fire willfully or recklessly. 

California’s Criminal Street Gang Enhancement – PC 186.22

The Criminal Street Gang Enhancement adds an additional penalty to any felony conviction when the offense was for the benefit of, or on the orders of, any criminal street gang. Graffiti is common among gangs. When used to promote the gang, it is called “tagging”. Prosecutors will likely file this charge along with vandalism charges.

Domestic Violence Laws – PC 273.5 and PC 243(e)(1)

Remember, vandalism occurs when someone is maliciously damaging property. This has a common connection with domestic disputes. A domestic dispute is when a spouse or partner damages property they both own during a fight.

There are two major Penal Codes that deal with Domestic Violence and can be connected with California vandalism laws.

First, PC 273.5 Corporal Injury on a Spouse or Cohabitant. This occurs when someone willfully inflicts bodily injury on their spouse. However, the injury must result in a traumatic condition, such as a visible wound.

Second, PC 243(e)(1) Domestic Battery. This is a misdemeanor offense that can be charged with any allegation that you willfully inflicted force or violence. Even a small amount of force that leaves no mark can be considered battery.

Damaging A Telephone or Electrical Line – PC 591

Vandalizing a telephone, electrical, or utility line is charged under a separate law known as Penal Code 591. This code enforces wobbler penalties on people who cut, damage, or obstruct phone, electrical, or cable lines. 

This includes any equipment associated with those lines. In this case, you could be charged with both vandalism and damaging a telephone line under both Penal Code 549 and Penal Code 591. 

record expungement for graffiti and vandalism convictions

Record Expungement for graffiti and vandalism charges

Usually, vandalism convictions are falsely charged. Most of the time, the court catches the wrong person or the damage was accidental. Whether you have been wrongfully convicted or you just made a bad choice, call us today.

Our expungement attorneys can clean your record of any graffiti and vandalism charges. Just like painting over graffiti, we put in the hard work to clear your record completely. This removes all convictions from the public eye (including employers and landlords). Let us help you today!


  1. Infraction – a conviction smaller than a misdemeanor where the only penalty is a fine
  2. Informal Adjudication – adjudication proceedings that vary based on agency-specific statute. This makes up 90% of all adjudication proceedings and operates under relaxed rules. 
  3. Formal Adjudication – adjudication proceedings that are governed by the APA under U.S. Code 554 and consist of a hearing followed by the court’s decision
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