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Spray Pain It May Look Like Petty Crime, But Graffiti Can Be Expensive To Clean Up And It Is A Strong Indicator Of Gang Influence

It’s as if animals went down the alley marking their turf.

Only here - near 38th and Arthur on the South Side - the markings are done in paint and likely the work of young vandals.

Big blue swirls mar fences, garage walls and doors from a graffiti incident three weeks ago. Small white characters are still visible from an earlier episode.

“I think it’s frightening,” said an elderly woman whose house borders the alley. She asked that her name not be used because she fears for her safety.

Dangerous or not, graffiti is common. Across the South Side, more than 500 incidents have been reported in the past two years.

Police say graffiti shouldn’t be dismissed as petty crime. Not only is it expensive to clean up, it frequently indicates growing competition among potentially dangerous youth gangs.

These gangs may start out as “tagger crews” intent on marking territory, but frequently, the gang members are involved in more serious crimes, police said.

Thefts, break-ins, drugs and violence often are associated with escalating gang activity, said Officer Larry Saunders, who tracks graffiti for the police department’s anti-gang unit.

“It’s almost a competition between these gangs,” Saunders said of the graffiti. “It’s like a wolf marking its territory.”

So far this year, police have taken 900 graffiti reports citywide.

They’ve made some arrests, including a case being brought against five suspects from the Shadle Park area.

Saunders said he currently is seeking a charge against one teenager on the South Hill who belongs to a gang that’s operating there.

In many locations, the vandals come back time and time again.

At 30th and Grand, the Sterling Center business strip has been hit six times in the past three weeks. Glass windows have been scratched, too.

It costs at least $200 each time graffiti has to be cleaned or painted, said Shaani Claypool, who works for property manager R.W. Robideaux & Co.

“They’ve graffitied over the entire place,” she said.

The rear of Sterling Center has a large wall facing the playground of Sacajawea Middle School. Claypool believes the vandals strike at night, and use the wall to send messages to students. She wonders if the vandals’ parents have any idea what their children are doing.

Claypool said she and business owners in the area are discussing increased nighttime surveillance or installing security cameras.

Farther west on 29th Avenue, the landmark bath house at Comstock Park also is a repeat target.

The brick walls have been marred with graffiti four times in the past year, some of it still faintly visible, even after sand blasting.

The graffiti paint soaks into the porous brick, so sand blasting is the only way to remove it.

At Comstock bath house, as well as many other old buildings, the brick was fired with a hard outer shell, but the interior of the brick is softer. Sandblasting strips off the harder outer layer, exposing the softer interior.

Repeated sand blasting, said Tony Madunich, park maintenance supervisor, “eventually ruins the brick.” As a result, the parks department may spend $6,000 for an experimental sealer to protect the brick, Madunich said.

Manufacturers are developing paints that resist graffiti and make it easier to clean off, but such coatings are more expensive.

For gangs, putting graffiti in unusual places is a measure of challenge and competition.

The under sides of two stone foot bridges at Cannon Hill Park have been painted with messages, and one bridge still has graffiti showing.

Just about every type of public property has been hit, including street signs, utility boxes, and bus shelters. The Clocktower at Riverfront Park was hit twice in the past year. The granite base of the Lincoln statue near the downtown library was painted last June.

“It’s a real frustrating thing,” Madunich said.

Graffiti would be even more visible on the South Hill if it weren’t for the efforts of volunteers, city officials said.

Neighborhood COPS groups have organized graffiti patrols to fight the problem.

Shirley Wilson, of the COPS Southwest group, has been cruising the area, looking for graffiti in recent weeks. She has had no shortage of work to do.

Like other volunteers, she photographs the graffiti for police, then works with property owners to get it removed. Police use the photographs to track gang activity, and get possible warnings of trouble that might be brewing among the gangs, word of which could show up in the scrawls.

Police call graffiti the “newspaper of the street.”

California gangs for years have used graffiti to issue threats and warn of retaliation between rival gangs.

For the most part, property owners are cooperative when they learn that city ordinance requires them to remove graffiti quickly, volunteers said.

Wilson said her biggest cleanup problem is with absentee landlords. “They don’t want to spend the money,” she said.

But police and neighborhood volunteers have new help in cleaning up graffiti.

A group called Paint Over Graffiti recently formed to help anyone who can’t afford to remove it themselves, and to provide expertise on the best cleaning methods.

Rich Wohrle, facilitator for POG, and other experts say that when graffiti scrawls aren’t removed quickly it can encourage gangs to paint more graffiti.

“The most improtant thing to do with graffiti is get it off,” said Paul Eminger, a volunteer at COPS Southeast.

Not all graffiti is gang related, he said. In some cases, it is the work of children who roam neighborhoods on foot or on bicycles committing vandalism they think is fashionable.

Eminger believes the sale of spray paint and wide markers should be outlawed to juveniles.

Even without a city ordinance to outlaw the sale, he said merchants should keep a close eye on spray paint racks to prevent teenagers from stealing paint for graffiti.

Officer Saunders said an ordinance banning the sale of spray paint to teens probably wouldn’t work since most of the paint used for graffiti is stolen anyway.

People like Claypool believe more could be done to stop the graffiti problem. She said police need to spend more time tracking down suspects and working with business owners to stop the vandalism.

“I think it’s truly ridiculous this is happening all over the South Hill,” Claypool said.

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