Sunday, July 30, 2000

City takes aggressive approach to graffiti

Cleanup team acts quickly to remove 'art'

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's sprayed and rolled on buildings, signs and poles across Cincinnati. Drawings, squiggly lines, balloony letters.

        Graffiti. Authors think it's attention-attracting art. The city wants it gone.

(Glenn Hartong photos)
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        Cincinnati's two-man Graffiti Removal Unit canvasses the city every day, painting over and pressure-washing graffiti on public and private property for free. Their goal: Get it off within 24 hours. They spent $150,000 last year alone to remove unwanted pictures and writing.

        They stay so focused on graffiti removal because of the popular “broken window” theory on crime — a broken window looks bad and reflects owner inattention, starting a process that eventually can take an entire neighborhood into disrepair and disrepute.

        It's a crime-prevention tool Cincinnati's ahead of the game in using. The removal unit, modeled six years ago after a similar one in Los Angeles, is get ting attention from Toledo and Columbus, where officials are thinking about copying the program.

        “Graffiti just becomes like a cancer that spreads and spreads and spreads,” said Officer Dominic Colenzo, an LAPD graffiti expert trained to translate the writings. “You have to clean it up and you have to do it fast.”

        Communities, transit companies and residents spend an estimated $7 billion every year removing graffiti, according to Graffiti Hurts, a nationwide awareness program.

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        Little graffiti around Cincinnati is gang-related — less than 10 percent, officials estimate. The figure is the same nationally, according to the National Council to Prevent Delinquency. Most of it here is what's known as tagging — somebody's name or nickname written in funky letters. “Drane” was a popular tag around the city for a while until the man responsible was sent to prison. “Trust Jesus” is common too.

        Also popular is hip hop — names and words written in colorful, big balloon letters. Businesses sometimes let “artists” take over entire walls, letting them decorate it in hip hop in hopes of deterring other graffiti. Like taggers, most of those responsible for hip hop are in their preteens to early 20s. They see their graffiti as artistic expression.

        But experts will tell you that even the more innocuous stuff can have devastating effects on everything from property values to crime rates. Worst, Officer Colenzo said, any type of graffiti can make people afraid.

        “Let's say you live in a nice $200,000 neighborhood and some tagger comes along and tags a wall,” he said. “Then somebody else comes along and tags it, too. Then somebody else does, too.

        “And pretty soon, you try to put your house up for sale and nobody wants to buy it. That's why you have to get graffiti off.”

        City officials hesitate to identify which neighborhoods suffer more. They don't want to tag any particular spot with the reputation of being a popular vandalism site for that same broken-window reason.

        University of Cincinnati public safety chief Gene Ferrara admits the campus and surrounding area are a big graffiti target. His department uses its Web site to urge people to report it. And officers regularly take special training to learn how to spot gang symbols. Studies have shown, he said, that getting graffiti off within 24 hours or less means an 80 percent chance it won't come back.

        “We target it as an issue,” he said. “We don't like it. We don't want it.”

        Nearly every other business along Calhoun Street, just off campus, is tagged with some kind of writing. Somebody who goes by “Spore” decided that nickname needed to be spray-painted throughout the neighborhood. There's tag-bashing or “topping,” too — that's somebody painting over another's graffiti.

        The GRU and Cincinnati Police Division's gang officers work together. An officer who spots a gang tag will notify the removers immediately. The painters take pictures of all the writing before they cover it so the gang unit can track the location of any gang work.

        “GWD,” for Gangsters With Drama, is a popular tag in parts of the city's west side, for example.

        The idea behind all of it is attention, said Linda Holterhoff of Keep Cincinnati Beautiful, who helped start the Graffiti Removal Unit with help from then-Mayor Roxanne Qualls and Downtown Cincinnati Inc. That's why taggers gravitate to overpasses and places along interstates — their words are in plain sight for a lot of people.

        “It's important for us to remove it because we want the city to be likable,” she said. “Graffiti is a detraction from that. It sets off those emotional cues that send people off running in the opposite direction.”

        Joe Williams is half of the city's graffiti attack unit. He drives around the city in a truck that specially mixes paint to match any surface.

        “I used to get mad about it,” Mr. Williams said. “But that means they win. Now I just say, "I've got more paint than you.'”

        For more information about anti-graffiti programs or to plan a paint-out, call Keep Cincinnati Beautiful at 352-4380.


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