For Rich Wohrle and dozens of others, it’s time to wage war against “taggers” - teens with too much paint on their hands.
Taggers fall into two groups. The first is made up of young vandals who use paint or felt pens to create bizarre or sprawling squiggles on cars, walls and garages, but who otherwise are basically harmless.
The other taggers are gang members using graffiti to mark territory or send messages to other gangs. Messages like: “XXNortXXXXXes” a threat aimed at another gang.
For Wohrle and others fighting the taggers, it doesn’t matter who created the mess. Wherever they find graffiti, they cover it up.
Earlier this year, he and other volunteers formed POG Paint Over Graffiti, a loose band of vigilantes who paint over graffiti from Airway Heights to Opportunity.
Using paint donated by hardware stores, POG goes out and targets spray-painted walls and edifices.
It could be a daylong project, like the long wall of the abandoned Pupo’s Produce building near the Monroe Street Bridge. Or a small sign sprayed onto a tiny corner of a house.
“My reaction to seeing graffiti is like seeing the droppings of a dog left in a yard. It’s disgusting, I can’t stand it,” Wohrle said.
Having started as a one-man operation early this year, Wohrle now helps direct as many as two or three crews a week covering over graffiti.
They’re gaining allies as they go. County prosecutors are now pursuing heavier penalties against area taggers, hoping the big stick approach will reduce the volume of graffiti.
Police officials, like Officer Larry Saunders, say Spokane has to use every means it can to stem the graffiti problem. Cities that ignore graffiti often discover complications later - community fear, increased gang crime and property devaluation, he said.
Wohrle and the other members of POG say their main goal is removing graffiti from abandoned buildings or property where owners can’t respond quickly to the problem.
“We’re not able to make the wall or surface look just like it did originally,” Wohrle said Friday, working with volunteers on an abandoned car wash on North Division.
“We can mostly cover it up, get rid of it. If the owner can afford to, he’ll have to repaint the wall to its original condition,” Wohrle said.
He and his associates collect about 80 gallons of donated paint each week. Wohrle and Eric Peterson, who runs a Spokane paint company, then use large vats to mix up three basic blends of cover paint.
They go into action after residents or property owners call neighborhood COPS shops to report graffiti that they can’t handle.
Much of the actual coverup has been done by teenagers from Riverview Youth Center, a non-profit program for teens convicted of crime who perform various community services.
Riverview Program Director Jeff Hastings has his crews go out with Wohrle at least once a week.
Often, after POG or Hastings’ workers blot out some graffiti, the perpetrators come back and tag the building again.
“We keep coming back, we never just ignore the problem,” Hastings said.
“In the end, if nothing else, they’ll know we won’t accept them doing this in our community,” he said.
Wohrle, 39, retired from the Army with a medical disability a few years ago. He started his crusade in his own neighborhood, the Cannon Addition just southwest of downtown.
“I realized I could help others do the same in their neighborhoods,” he said.
Like others in the group, he sometimes drives with a gallon of paint and a brush in his truck. Spotting a bridge or tagged warehouse, Wohrle will pull over and cover it up.
In July, Wohrle and his loose band of anti-taggers were invited by county and city police officers to join a community campaign against graffiti. They decided, at that point, to form an organization devoted to helping residents remove tagging.
“It didn’t take long to pick a name,” Wohrle said of POG. “What do we do? We paint over graffiti.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo