Cost of Cleaning City Walls Rises

Officials crack down on graffiti artists, banning sale of spray cans and arresting offenders

SPREAD the word (but not on subways or walls, please) that in many American cities, the war against the blight of graffiti is getting aggressive.

With the strategy of the New York subway in mind - no train leaves the yard now with graffiti on it - city officials and community groups across the US are adopting quicker removal as an effective deterrent. This, and tougher laws against both gang members and random "taggers," are becoming common in the fight to control graffiti's scribbled urban presence.

But the cost of removal, let alone quick removal, is on the rise.

* In Pomona, Calif., a graffiti tax raised $427,600 last year to help pay the salaries of 11 city workers who remove graffiti daily.

* Jersey City, N.J., spends about $500,000 a year on graffiti removal. The city council is considering a measure that would require stores to be licensed to sell spray paint, and record the names and addresses of spray can buyers.

* Long Beach, Calif., will spend almost $400,000 this year on a program to remove graffiti. In selected areas the city also uses electronic surveillance cameras to monitor taggers.

* In New York City, where graffiti has all but been eliminated on the subway, but not above ground, the transit authority is spending around $24 million to install harder-to-scratch, shatterproof glass on all subway trains.

* In May, the Chicago City Council banned the sale of spray cans to anybody but parents or teachers, or workers supervised by their bosses. Fines of up to $1,000 are possible.

"If you make the effort to control graffiti," says Lt. Michael Garrihy of the New York Transit Authority Vandal Unit, echoing other experts around the country, "you can reduce it."

During the 1980s, and at a cost of around $32 million, the New York subway system removed virtually all graffiti. Almost all New York subway trains are now made of stainless steel. Previous trains had painted surfaces which were easier to spray and harder to clean.

"We got rid of almost all graffiti because of an extremely strong policing program," says Charles Seaton, a spokesman for the New York Transit Authority. "When we see graffiti on a car, we take it out of service in the middle of the route and clean it. We don't let the graffiti accumulate. If you let it accumulate, it sends the message that nobody cares."

Private companies that contract with city and state agencies also echo the "move fast" strategy against graffiti.

"We tell our clients to call us right away when graffiti appears," says Susanne Steinlechner, vice president of International Graffiti Control in Stamford, Conn. "If they don't, more and more graffiti will appear. If you remove it quickly, it discourages the taggers."

Ms. Steinlechner's company contracts with several New York City departments, and private companies to remove graffiti with chemicals approved by the United States Environmental Protection Agency. "When we came here seven years ago from Sweden," she says, "New York was the worst we had ever seen. Now cities in Italy and France are having graffiti problems."

In Huntington Beach, Calif., a city of 200,000, most of the graffiti is applied with surf wax (for waxing surfboards)on sidewalks. "It's hard to get off," says city employee Barbara Urbano, "because it melts into the pores of the cement as the sun heats it."

THE city's graffiti hot line gets about 200 calls a month, and the number of calls has increased 300 percent in the last year and a half. One worker is assigned full time to graffiti removal.

"He's definitely overworked," says Ms. Urbano. "The L.A. gangs seem to be moving out of their own territories, and marking out new territory. Then rival gangs come through and spray over it. When people call the hot line, it's an emotional topic because they think the gangs are moving in here."

Various California towns within the last six months have passed ordinances prohibiting the sale of spray cans to minors, mandating businesses to remove graffiti within a specified time limit (the city will refund the cost), establishing fines, and providing community service for offenders.

Some of the graffiti in New York are done on subway trains at night for different reasons than in the past. In the 1970s and '80s, graffiti was a way to become notorious with a "tag" or name plastered all over the subway and city.

Today, many of those who do graffiti in New York know it won't be seen a day if that long. "The kids who do it think of themselves as artists," says Lieutenant Garrihy. "They do the graffiti, take photos or videos of it, and try to get it published in the magazines or collector videos."

In Los Angeles and surrounding areas, graffiti on walls and buildings is gang-related, the tell-tail symbols of gang members either claiming territory, making challenges, or memorials to slain gang members.

"It's a major problem in L.A.," says Tony Barbone, a consultant to Community Youth Gang Services [CYGS], a city and state funded anti-gang organization that also removes graffiti. "CYGS has two teams, and all they do is remove graffiti," says Mr. Barbone. "We get court referrals for the teams. These are the guys sentenced by the court to do community service."

Even though California state law forbids the sale of spray cans to anyone under 18, spray cans are easily stolen.

"I advocate banning them totally," says Barbone. "There should be harsh criminal sanctions for those involved. There's no clear message out in the community. The gangs and taggers say, `So what? What's the big deal?' "

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