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The writing on the wall 

One man's hate of graffiti helped rewrite how local city officials deal with vandalism

He scrubbed so hard his knuckles turned white. Beads of sweat collected in his eyebrows and trickled down his cheeks, but he kept on scrubbing. He scrubbed until his arm couldn't take it anymore.

click to enlarge PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • Photos by Steve E. Miller

# Then he took a step back, wiped the sweat from his face, and examined his progress--the graffiti was still visible. Not good enough. So he tightened his grip on the towel, sprayed a cleaning solution on the white wall on the southeast corner of Marsh and Nipomo streets, and went right back to scrubbing.

It was a glorious February afternoon in San Luis Obispo. The weather was warm, the sky was blue, and the sun was shining. It was the kind of conditions that make Midwesterners so envious they decide to pack up their belongings, make the trek across the snow-ridden heartland of America, and move to the comfortable Central Coast.

But while most SLO County folks were wearing shorts and flip flops, one man was clad in white overalls, a long-sleeve shirt, and a blue baseball cap. He was doing what he always does: battling SLO's growing graffiti dilemma.

Graffiti in SLO County costs locals hundreds of thousands of tax dollars each year to clean up.

In an effort to help rid the Central Coast of vandalism, one man took it upon himself to combat this increasing problem. Think of him as an environmentally conscious Charles Bronson carrying buckets of paint and thinner instead of machine guns and hand grenades.

Now, more than two years after he first presented this problem to local government officials, he has spawned an anti-graffiti volunteer team nearly a dozen members strong and has prompted local law enforcement agencies and city departments to rewrite how they will deal with the illegal writing on the wall.

The vandalism vigilante

Armed with an arsenal of paint, brushes, cleaning supplies, and rubber gloves, Joe aims to clean up San Luis Obispo's increasing graffiti problem one day at a time.

"This is my neighborhood, and I want it to look nice," he said through a protective mask as he scrubbed a graffiti-ridden sign near the intersection of Chorro and Lincoln streets.

Joe, a 67-year-old retired SLO elementary school teacher--who requested that his last name not be used for fear of retaliation from the vandals whose graffiti he's cleaning up--first decided to do something about graffiti in 2005.

"Graffiti was an increasing problem in my neighborhood," he said. "I called the graffiti line, but it was so filled up I never get through. So I went to city hall meetings, but no one was responding."

He then began documenting local graffiti and presented council members with pictures of the vandalism.

"The biggest challenge was better communication," he said. "The city, the county, the state, PG&E--before, they weren't communicating. But when I showed the powers-that-be this is a real problem, I think they noticed. Three months later, they hired me."

Now, Joe is an official city volunteer. He and about 10 other volunteers work with the city's public works department in an attempt to rid SLO of graffiti, even if the erasure is only temporary.

"When you see the graffiti cleaned, it might only be for one day. I don't get upset, it's just part of the job" Joe said. "But it may frustrate those guys, and--who knows?--they might give up or come out earlier and get caught by the police."

According to the San Luis Obispo Police Department's Lt. Bill Proll, graffiti in this town has increased immensely, though volunteers have also made a significant dent in the city's graffiti problem.

"Joe is a big help," he said. "There's a small force of [volunteers] right now, but they are making a really big difference."

Joe has always been about making a difference. During his years as a teacher, he supported the idea of environmental cleanliness.

"When Earth Day comes in April, I always thought they should have it all year long as opposed to just one day," he said. "I always tried to teach that in the classroom."

Now, eight years since he last taught, Joe has moved his lecture from the classroom to the streets. He says that removing graffiti gives him a similar sense of satisfaction.

"It's like when you teach a lesson and it goes well," he said. "You get a sense of accomplishment like you did the right thing. You know you're doing good for the environment and you're giving back."

Joe, however, doesn't get back anything more than a sense of accomplishment. The city doesn't pay him for his efforts. He often buys paint with money from his own pocket. Many store employees, however, have noticed his efforts and offer him discounted prices on painting supplies, he said.

The rise

"Graffiti in this town has increased," Lt. Proll said. "Our complaints are way up, and there's a lot of people upset about this. There seems to be more taggers out there just in general, and I don't know why."

Proll said that local graffiti vandals are becoming bolder than they've been in years past.

He explained that taggers traditionally did their business under bridges and along the city's railroad corridor. Now they're tagging more prominent buildings, city facilities, and public property.

In an effort to stop this damage, Proll said that the city is in the middle of a creating a graffiti management plan, with the written document still in the construction phase.

The plan will discuss rapid removal of graffiti, education, prevention, and enforcement.

Proll said that the plan would include growing vegetation on walls, installing better lighting, and putting up surface coatings that make graffiti removal a lot easier. In addition, officers will do more patrols in areas prone to graffiti and set up anti-vandalism programs in public schools, which will inform students that graffiti--no matter how cool it looks--isn't art.

Despite the new tactics, Proll said that it would be impractical to assume they could eliminate SLO's growing graffiti problem forever.

"It's kind of proven that if graffiti remains, it will get added to," he said. "So we're going to get rid of it quicker, and we're doing stuff to catch [vandals] more."

If caught committing graffiti-related vandalism that amounts to less than $400 in damage, a tagger could spend a year in jail and be charged with a misdemeanor. Anything that causes more than $400 in damage could result in a felony conviction, making the perpetrator eligible to go to state prison.

But it's not the criminals who are being forced to pay. Business owners who have had their place of work vandalized must act fast in the removal process or be subject to fines.

According to the SLOPD's website, any person, firm, or corporation owning, leasing, occupying, or having possession of any private property who refuses to remove graffiti from that property is guilty of an infraction and may be fined for each day the graffiti remains.

Proll said that anyone who notices vandalism in San Luis Obispo should call the Graffiti Hotline at 783-STOP and report the street address and type of graffiti.

The city's anti-graffiti plan is expected to be complete sometime in April.

The public's perspective

Despite the plan in motion, not everyone in town thinks SLO has a graffiti problem.

Sandwiched between Cal Poly's football stadium and the train tracks is an electrical box with a happy face and the phrase, "keep smiling, you are here" spray-painted on it. For some students, the graffiti seems to be more inspirational than disheartening.

"Well, I'm from Colorado, so when I look at that that sign--'keep smiling, you are here'--I always remind myself, I'm here in California with beautiful weather, and I'm lucky to be at school here," said freshman business student Sarah Gabel.

A fellow student voiced a similar opinion.

"I'm used to seeing graffiti. So when I see this, I think it's kind of a joke," said freshman animal science student Skip Kanemaki. "I come from [San Pedro], where there's a lot of ghetto areas where gangs are prevalent. So when I see graffiti here in SLO, it's kind of funny because I really never see it here. It's usually so nice and so clean."

Paso's problems

In late January, a North County duo was arrested by the Paso Robles Police Department for their alleged involvement in 55 cases of graffiti vandalism throughout SLO County, which caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage.

As of press time, Travis Allen Reed, 29, of Paso Robles, and Alejandro Able Alvarado, 23, of Atascadero, were both still sitting in County Jail in lieu of $50,000 bail on suspicion of felony vandalism and criminal conspiracy.

For some, a $50,000 bail may seem a little excessive for what amounts to writing on a wall, but removing graffiti is becoming grossly expensive.

The cost of cleaning up graffiti in Paso Robles skyrocketed from $30,000 a couple of years ago to more than $200,000 in 2007, according to Paso Robles Police Chief Lisa Solomon.

"We've definitely had an increase in graffiti the last couple of years, and we've taken a pretty aggressive stance in our enforcement and education efforts in our community," Solomon said.

But according to Solomon, the anti-graffiti efforts have come during a time of financial hardship.

"We're all working with limited resources and budgets," she said. "Graffiti is something that people can do very quickly, and the only way we can catch them without citizens's assistance is surveillance and significant task-force-type efforts that take up a significant amount of time and effort."

Currently, the city of Paso Robles has a zero-tolerance policy for graffiti, and enforcers pride themselves on their 24-hour takedown policy.

Solomon said that the local graffiti problem has a direct correlation to current pop culture.

"We've related a lot of graffiti issues to what's portrayed in movies and videos," she said. "You can't watch a movie without seeing walls with graffiti."

In light of that perceived genesis, Solomon said that the problem can be stopped at home.

"Parents should report activity with their kids involved with graffiti activity on their books, clothing, or walls, because it may carry over to criminal activity," Solomon said. "They should try to intervene, and if they need assistance, call us."

The future

Despite the increase in awareness and community involvement, volunteer Joe is pessimistic about the future of his efforts in SLO.

"There's even more graffiti than before," he said, "and I think it's just going to get worse."

Still, Joe expressed no animosity toward the taggers themselves.

"I hate graffiti, but I'm not mad at them," he said. "I understand that people who do this are disturbed. They're kids upset with their families, mentally ill. You have to feel sorry for them."

Staff Writer Kai Beech's reporting is often viewed as journalistic vandalism by his co-workers. Contact him at [email protected].


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