Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Solution: To Graffiti

Graffiti, a.k.a tagging, is up all over the world, and it's one of the earliest symptoms of the erosion of society. Whether it's gang-related, hate-crime oriented (Aryan Nation in Iraq) or just kids, little 'frustrated artists,' hellbent on expressing themselves, the taggers have one thing in common: A disregard for the property of others. That's never a good trait for people who rely on respect for the rule of law to keep chaos from breaking out. The cost to remove graffiti is out of reach for many cities. And those cities that do have aggressive graffiti removal find that once it is removed, the taggers return before the paint on the repair dries.

Lodi (a city at the north end of California's central valley, just south of Sacramento) is left to rely on the kindness of volunteers to paint over and perform other maintenance chores on public grounds that local budgets can't afford. Sheriffs in Mendocino County in California have discovered that when graffiti is allowed to remain, and is visible to inmates riding on California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation buses heading to Pelican Bay State Prison on Hwy. 101 it can communicate a dangerous message.

"When they see graffiti, it tells them who's there and what's going on in that town," Pearce said. "It's a real sign that they might have the ability to function in a particular town."

Mendocino has just passed a Graffiti Suppression Ordinance which allows the county to remove graffiti from private and public property in its unincorporated areas at no cost to the property owner and little cost to the county itself.

But Santa Rosa, California, has a program that could be called "smart government" (liberal) in that it tackles the problem from a whole systems approach:
It is scrawled in spray paint or marker, on walls beneath freeway bridges, on fences and mailboxes, houses, businesses and street signs, some of it intricately patterned, most of it an eyesore that's hard to remove.

"Once you start to look for it, you see it everywhere," said Georgia Pedgrift, Santa Rosa's graffiti abatement coordinator, a job she took after four years on the Sonoma County Sheriff's Department's graffiti detail.

A Santa Rosa native who not so long ago aspired to do standup comedy, Pedgrift, 27, is part graffiti gumshoe, part bureaucratic enforcer, part educator and part maintenance worker.

She navigates the secret world of adrenaline-fueled taggers and stops to wipe garbage cans clean of scribbled tags. She teaches elementary school students about graffiti's impacts and costs. She appears on the doorsteps of the property owners hit by taggers and instructs them, under city law, to clean up the graffiti left on their walls within 72 hours.

A civilian employee of the Police Department, she's no prototypically fearless crime fighter. Rough neighborhoods rattle her - she requested a bulletproof vest when she worked for the Sheriff's Department. She asked that any news photographs conceal her identity. And other aspects of law enforcement unnerve her, she said.

But she's earned a reputation as the right person to have on the front lines of the fight against graffiti.

"She is just a ball of fire," said San Bernardino Police Sgt. Dwight Waldo, a nationally known expert who runs his department's graffiti task force and trained Pedgrift when she joined the Sheriff's Department.

"She is a really good person to have in charge of this stuff," said Waldo, adding that he would rank Pedgrift among "the top 10 or 15" graffiti-fighting experts in the country.

Pedgrift took anti-graffiti efforts to "the next level," said Sheriff's Capt. Matt McCaffrey.

She shifted the focus from "reactive" cleanup efforts to a "proactive and preventive" approach of tracking and identifying taggers so they could be prosecuted, he said.

After joining the city, Pedgrift worked on the investigation that led to the arrest this month of Santa Rosa Junior College art student Saif Azzuz, 18, who is suspected of writing hundreds of "El Barto" and "Bart" tags around the city.

"Now the graffiti is 'Viva El Barto,'" she said. "We're getting the backlash graffiti."

The El Barto tags - like most of the graffiti in the city outside of a few neighborhoods where gangs have a strong presence - were not gang related, Pedgrift said. But at least one tagging crew, she said, has begun to include a norteño gang slogan in its usual graffiti writing.

For those who consider graffiti little worse than the eruptions of frustrated young artists, she has this bracing bad news: "The community doesn't understand that graffiti and the subculture around it becomes kind of an addiction. It's an entire lifestyle."

Taggers socialize together, align with crews and, online, trade photographs and tips on techniques, boast of their exploits and post obscene jeers at those who track and clean up after them.

"It becomes all-consuming," she said. "Taggers themselves will say, 'I feel addicted.' So I think we have to kind of address it like that - instead of just thinking, you know, 'These kids are logically just going to realize it's a bad idea.'"

The higher a tag - a "heaven's piece," in tagger slang - the better. The more visible, the better. The more tags are placed, the better. The greater the risk of being caught, the better.

Bigger, higher, more, fame: graffiti is a pursuit twined tightly with the ego.

"And a huge part of it, most of them will tell you," said Pedgrift, "is the rush they get from breaking the law, from being part of this underground subculture."

Six walls supporting a Highway 101 overpass near Windsor - not quite underground but reached via a descending dirt path tangled with blackberry bushes - colorfully illustrate the taggers' obsessions, and, by virtue of location, offer an insight into what drives them.

"This is where they come to show off," said Pedgrift on a recent visit. "It's not to show off for you and me, none of it's really to show off for you and me."

Out-of-the-way places like this - on walls, the roof, the rock-reinforced embankments - are where taggers erect their best, most elaborate work.

Empty spray paint cans and lids litter the ground near a small creek, signs of carelessness that contrast sharply with the obvious effort displayed in tagger nicknames rendered in dazzlingly complex, multi-colored abstract patterns that rise to heights topping eight feet.

Under one is written: "I ditch cops, 2006."

In the El Barto case, police estimated that damage from the tags - tallied in the cost of cleanup and resources spent tracking them - reached $100,000.

Azzuz, who is free on $50,000 bail and has pleaded not guilty, could face more than five years in prison if convicted on all the vandalism counts he faces.

Tracking, understanding and eradicating graffiti energizes Pedgrift. But the actual closing in on and capture of suspected taggers can be a wrenching process for this daughter of a math professor, therapist and former Santa Rosa city councilman.

Writing the affidavits in support of the search warrants that police used in arresting Azzuz has been "my least favorite part of the job so far," she said.

"I'm all for accountability, don't get me wrong," she said. "It's not that I think we should give everyone a hug and be on our way, I just get emotionally caught up and feel bad."

Her job is cut out for her.

Graffiti "hits" in Santa Rosa shot from an estimated 200 in 1992 to 20,000 in 2004, said Steve Kroeck, the city's deputy director of field services. Now the city spends more than $500,000 a year to clean it up.

That was a key reason for ordinances adopted in 2001, 2003 and 2005 that require property owners to clean up graffiti within 72 hours of notification and that successively strengthened the city's ability to prosecute graffiti crimes.

Pedgrift acknowledged that forcing tenants and property owners to clean up graffiti can be seen as unfair. But the city can't shoulder the financial burden alone, she said.

"In an ideal world that wouldn't happen. Why would you come ask a victim, not only ask them, but tell them, 'You have to clean up damage someone else has done.'"

The answer, she said, is that "it's for you, it's for us, it's for the community."

Which would you rather have blighting your neighborhood?

This . . .

Or this . . . .

. . . . and this:

How to make a LED throwie:

If you must be an outlaw, then do it with style . . . .

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