City has cleanup crews, tough new penalties for vandalism. WITH BREAKOUTS.
One minute, a red scribble of graffiti was on the cinderblock wall. The next minute, it was gone – erased by a jet-blast mixture of water and baking soda. Nearby, a cryptic gang message had been scrawled in paint on a plastic trash can cover. Within moments, it disappeared, too -- scrubbed by a citrus-based solution. “It’s no different than a dog marking a fire hydrant – it’s somebody marking their turf,” Matt Smith, spokesman for Chicago’s Streets and Sanitation Department, said recently as city workers cleaned up defaced surfaces in a Northwest Side neighborhood. “It’s vandalism. It’s ego.” Chicago is trying to take back its walls through a $6.5 million annual program known as “Graffiti Blasters” that began in 1993. But at times, it might seem like an uphill battle for the 77 employees who use an arsenal of solvents and paints to erase or obscure the work of vandals. Each year, mobile crews remove an average of 130,000 pieces of graffiti at public and private properties in affluent and distressed neighborhoods. The phoned-in reports come in constantly, and given the volume, it may take as long as a week to respond to a call, said supervisor Tom O’Connor. There is no charge to property owners. The graffiti in Chicago ranges from intimidating gang messages to the random “taggings” of juvenile attention-seekers. There are even elaborate, quasi-artistic -- though illegal-- wall paintings and stenciled pieces of “guerilla marketing.” “Graffiti is not an expression,” Smith said. “If you want to make an expression, use a canvas.” And then there are the pieces of “hate graffiti” that express a racist or vulgar message. Those markings get top priority for removal, Smith said. Graffiti Blasters is the reactive side of Chicago’s efforts. The city is ready to launch a revised front-end strategy, with the recent approval of an ordinance that holds parents or guardians financially liable if their minor child damages a property with graffiti. Under the new law, which takes effect in November, adults can be socked with a fine of between $250 and $750 and be obligated to pay restitution. Mayor Richard Daley sought higher financial penalties but negotiated a cap with aldermen who said poor families would be hurt by heftier payments. Ald. James Balcer, a Vietnam veteran who was incensed by vandalism at a war memorial downtown, said the new ordinance is appropriate. Chicago has tried to fight graffiti legislatively in the past, and officials concede the problem hasn’t gone away. The City Council banned the sale of spray paint at local stores and more recently prohibited the sale of acid-based pastes that vandals have used to permanently scratch windows – a more recent trend in graffiti. A sponsor of the latter measure, Ald. Manny Flores, said troublemakers can get around the law by ordering the product over the Internet. Normally, the pastes are used for arts and crafts. When used on windows, the damage cannot be reversed; Graffiti Blasters refers acid-etchings to the police department, Smith said. “I feel terrible for these entrepreneurs, these mom-and-pop (store owners) trying to make a go of it,” Flores said. “They go to work, and all of a sudden they see their front window damaged.” One graffiti expert-for-hire said cities that document and track the activity of vandals have had the most success in reducing it. Timothy Kephart, president and CEO of Graffiti Tracker Inc., said his Omaha, Neb.-based firm has contracts with 24 cities to analyze data and provide “intelligence” to police officials, who use the information to zero in on suspects. “If you don’t catch the kids, you can’t hold the parent accountable,” he said. Kephart said the vandalism has “significantly increased” over the past five years in urban and suburban areas alike. It is thought that graffiti costs property owners billions of dollars annually across the United States. “It’s multiple factors,” Kephart said. “You have got more of a pop culture that is exposing kids to this to make it seem kind of cool. There’s probably more disorganization in the home.” Smith, the streets and sanitation agency spokesman, said Chicago's Graffiti Blasters program represents a zero-tolerance policy as prolific vandals keep trying to send their “message.” “We’ll send a message: We won’t tolerate it,” he said. Mike Ramsey can be reached at (312) 857-2323 or email@example.com. GRAFFITI IN CHICAGO: THE NUMBERS The number of reported graffiti incidents in Chicago has fluctuated little since 2000. 2007: 102,630 (through Sept. 1) 2006: 162,635 2005: 123,440 2004: 106,849 2003: 141,012 2002: 164,335 2001: 161,693 2000: 127,703 Source: Chicago Department of Streets and Sanitation TYPES OF GRAFITTI The majority of graffiti in cities, some 80 percent, is “tagging” done by youths ages 12 to 18 who seek notoriety, says Tim Kephart, president and CEO of the private firm Graffiti Tracker Inc., which analyzes vandalism patterns for cities. He said the other 20 percent is gang graffiti that is meant to inspire fear and intimidation. He said those markings are typically left by the gang’s youngest members. Only about 1 percent of graffiti comprise the elaborate and colorful murals known as “bombing,” Kephart said. These “artists” are in their late teens or 20s, he said. “They do have talent, but the problem is, in order to get that good, they did a lot of damage,” Kephart said.