April 2007

The growing problem of graffiti

By Kelly Shethar

RICK BECHER SEES NEW GRAFFITI DAMAGE AT HIS BUSINESS NEARLY EVERY DAYEach morning as Rick Becher opens his plumbing shop on South Washington Street in Cortez, he wonders what new damage has been done during the night to his building’s alley wall and garage door. Becher, owner of Rick’s Plumbing, has operated his business in the same location since 1982 and has endured years of repeated graffiti vandalism to his building.

“I finally just quit. I gave up,” Becher said. “You can’t clean it off every day.”

Becher said he tried for years to promptly cover the graffiti that now mars the side of his otherwise tidy building, but the task grew frustrating and costly as the vandals seemed relentless and new graffiti quickly appeared.

“It embarrasses me to have all that stuff on there,” he said. “But I just don’t have the time or the money to fix it.” He estimates that it would cost about $2,000 to have his building professionally painted.

“It’s not like the [Cortez] Journal said [in a Feb. 17, 2007 editorial],” Becher said. “It’s not like shoveling snow, you see an end to that. But [graffiti] can happen any night. And it takes a whole lot longer to paint that wall than it does to shovel that sidewalk off.”

Officers from the Cortez Police Department respond to Becher’s business each time he calls to report new graffiti. And Becher would like to see more done to catch the vandals.

“I just think they need to start prosecuting some of these people,” Becher said. “And not just throwing them in jail for a month or so, they ought to pay the bill [for damages] and be responsible for their actions.”

Diane Fox, school resource officer for the Cortez Police Department, said that the department investigates frequent complaints from property owners about graffiti vandalism but that catching the vandals in the act is a difficult task because most incidences occur at night when the vandals have the advantage over the police.

“They are really tough to catch,” Fox said. “They see us coming unless we are on foot or bike patrol where we can get in the alleys and kind of sneak around.”

Fox said that graffiti vandals are often males, ranging in age from 11 to 18. She added that young females are frequently involved with graffiti and are even forming their own gangs.

Graffiti is the most common type of property vandalism, and much of what is seen in the Cortez area is either gang-related graffiti or what is known as tagging. “Graffiti, especially gangrelated graffiti, is the newspaper of the street,” Fox said.

Gang graffiti often appears as letters, numbers and symbols, and is usually only recognized by the gang members and law-enforcement officers. These marks serve as a crude message system for gangs to mark territory, announce members, offer drugs for sale and send warnings to rival gangs.

“We started seeing a lot of (gang graffiti) last summer,” Fox said. She explained that officers watch graffiti to learn of the presence of gangs. When they start seeing “cover-ups” — gang graffiti sprayed over others’ marks — they know a rival gang is also in the area and there could be conflicts between the two.

Fox said that a rash of gang-related graffiti last summer was linked to a group of Navajo juveniles claiming ties to a gang out of Salt Lake City, Utah. The suspected vandals had been sent to Salt Lake City for school and were “jumped,” or recruited, into a gang. They returned to Cortez and started leaving their mark on local buildings.

“People make the mistake, especially in small towns like Cortez, of thinking these kids are just wannabe gang members,” Fox said. “Any gang expert or authority on gangs will tell you there’s no such thing as a wannabe gang member. You either have that ‘gangsta’ mentality or you don’t have it. You either adopt that culture or you don’t.”

Tagging, another form of graffiti, is usually distinctive and often simple markings placed in many locations throughout a neighborhood or city. The purpose of a tag is to bring recognition and notoriety to the tagger.

“A tagger just wants his tag up,” Fox said. People know who the tagger is and recognize his or her moniker, she said.

As a tagger’s mark becomes noticed by his or her friends and fellow vandals, the tagger’s reputation grows. The more dangerous and high-profile the location, the more attention brought to the tagger.

Tagging becomes a competition between vandals, all working to outdo the other. New tags appear over previous marks, tags show up in more prominent locations and, left unchecked, tags spread to more and more locations.

Fox explained that tagging is usually done in alleys. Once an area is tagged, the vandals often return to the same area to mark it again. Interestingly, taggers often mark prolifically in the area near where they live to announce their presence.

In addition to her duties as school resource officer, Fox maintains a graffiti book for the police department, a thick binder filled with photographs of graffiti in various locations throughout the city. By studying the different marks, officers can sometimes connect certain individuals to their corresponding graffiti tag.

In one case, Fox said, a young man was arrested after a disturbance and officers were able to learn his street name, or moniker. The man’s moniker was also his tag, which he had spraypainted on several buildings throughout the city. The man admitted responsibility for the vandalism after being shown the photos of his tag in the police department’s graffiti book.

“The best you can do is hope to identify who did it through one of their monikers or tags,” Fox said, “and get them charged with it and get the parents to pay for the damages.”

Even if officers don’t catch vandals in the act, city code prohibits the possession of graffiti paraphernalia by anyone under age 18. Prohibited items include aerosol paint containers, etchers, gum labels, markers, paint bombs and paint sticks. Fox said juveniles often get spray paint and markers from local retailers. She added that one graffiti vandal’s mother was buying spray paint for him so he could “decorate his room.”

In addition to tracking graffiti and investigating complaints, Fox said she and other officers do their best to educate property owners who are victims of graffiti vandalism.

“The best thing you can do with graffiti is abate it immediately,” she said. “Get rid of it. Get rid of it. Get rid of it.” If left uncovered, graffiti not only looks trashy, but gives graffiti vandals the result they are looking for — their tag, moniker or gang sign on display for all to see.

In addition to covering graffiti as soon as possible, Fox said that keeping dark areas illuminated at night helps deter vandals. Security cameras placed in areas frequently hit by graffiti vandals also works to reduce property damage.

Not only can police cite minors for possession of graffiti materials, property owners within the city can be held liable for cleanup of graffiti damage on their properties. The Cortez City Code states that a property owner can be compelled to remove within 10 days graffiti that is deemed to be a public nuisance. However, Renda Wright, community service coordinator for the Cortez Police Department, said that in most cases property owners clean up graffiti on their own, without prompting from the city.

“A lot of the property owners are constantly cleaning up their properties,” Wright said. “They clean it up because they think it looks really bad.”

Wright is coordinator for the city’s new graffiti-abatement program, set to begin March 31. She will oversee inmates from the Montezuma County Jail as they paint over graffiti vandalism throughout the city. Wright has identified and photographed graffiti around town and is working to obtain permission from property owners to paint over the damaged areas.

“We went out and took picture of all the graffiti we could find,” Wright said. “Then Chief [Roy Lane] said that we would start downtown, where it was the most obvious and more people see it, then work our way out until we get it all done.”

The inmates will work each Saturday, weather permitting, Wright said. Areas damaged by graffiti will be primed, if necessary, and painted over with colors to closely match existing paint.

Wright said property owners and area residents who haven’t been contacted about graffiti on their buildings should call her at the police department, 565-8441. She said much of the city’s graffiti was found in alleys within a half block of Main Street, where her crews will concentrate their initial efforts.

This comes as good news for Becher, whose shop is located in one of the hardest-hit areas. He said he’s happy to see the city and county creating an abatement program and making an effort to help property owners with the graffiti problem.

He added that although he’s frustrated and disgusted with the graffiti problem, he appreciates the time and effort that police invest in responding to his calls and trying to catch the vandals.

“It’s hard these days to get by and run a business, especially a small business like mine. I try and keep my grass cut and my trees trimmed and make it look like a decent place to do business,” Becher said. “Then I come and find the building all marked up, and (graffiti) more than half way down the block.

“[Vandals] just don’t know how hard people work to get what they have,” he said. “In a few minutes’ time they can come in and destroy it.”