Cities Up Fines, Hire More Workers to Erase Graffiti

SPRINGFIELD, Ohio (AP) - Cities are offering rewards, increasing fines, hiring more workers and using global positioning technology to better fight graffiti that is marring historic homes and sites, bridges and statues.

The increased efforts to erase or reduce the scrawled names, phrases, obscenities and symbols can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"It's certainly not a new problem, but just in this month, we've had all of a sudden more appearances," said Mayor Warren Copeland in Springfield, a western Ohio city of more than 65,000 people.

The city's Westcott House, designed by noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright and recently restored at a cost of $5.8 million, became a graffiti canvas. Black markings spray-painted on the home's once-spotless stucco formed what appeared to be a headless stick figure and the letters "cbx."

Phoenix has added a second anti-graffiti crew and in fiscal 2006-07 painted over 63,723 graffiti sites, a 32 percent increase over the previous year.

The city's anti-graffiti budget has steadily increased over the past four years, jumping from $1.16 million to $1.93 million. More reward money - which has totaled $175,000 since 1995 - is being given out for the apprehension of vandals.

Springfield and other cities are working with schools to identify suspects and curb the problem. In the fall, Lincoln, Neb., will start a program that includes poster contests to steer students away from getting involved in graffiti. Lincoln also is requiring property owners to quickly remove graffiti or the city will bill them for doing the job.

Washington, D.C., has reduced the time that city officials must wait before removing graffiti without the consent of private property owners. New York City bans the sale of aerosol spray paint in cans, broad-tipped indelible markers or etching acid to anyone under 21.

Cities are cracking down in response to a sudden rash or steady rise of graffiti, out of concern it will spread or invite more serious property crimes, or because of public outcry over the marring of a historic or valued landmark.

The NoGraf Network Inc., a Yreka, Calif.-based anti-graffiti group, estimates that graffiti damage and cleanup costs about $15 billion a year in the United States.

Business is booming for some high-tech graffiti detectives.

Los Angeles-based Graffiti Tracker has grown from one employee serving one city in January 2006 to 12 employees serving about 35 cities. The company's annual revenue is expected to double next year to $1 million.

The company supplies cities with digital cameras equipped with Global Positioning System technology. It analyzes the photos to match graffiti with the vandals, identifies location clusters to better predict graffiti targets and provides police with evidence once the vandals are caught.

While graffiti has long been associated with big cities, graffiti vandals are cutting a higher profile in many smaller communities as well, said Tim Kephart, president of Graffiti Tracker.

"This is a way for them in their small-world community - their small circle of friends - to get a name for themselves," he said.

Wyandotte, Mich., a city of 30,000 south of Detroit, this month decided to offer up to $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of vandals because of a chronic graffiti problem at a skate park.

Cedar City, Utah, a community of 25,000, is buying a paint sprayer to help cover up graffiti after bathrooms, baseball dugouts and a veterans monument were defaced in a recent rash of vandalism in city parks.

"The city felt like we needed to be more proactive on this in getting it off as soon as we can," said Bob Tate, director of parks and recreation.

Experts say only a small percentage of graffiti is gang related. Most people do it for attention and notoriety, using monikers or "tags" to identify graffiti as their own and then bragging about it to their friends. The Internet can fuel the spread of graffiti, with taggers sharing their work and urging each other on.

Anchorage, Alaska, has begun using brush-wielding volunteers who paint over graffiti.

Jeff Schmitz, a 56-year-old microwave technician, blots out graffiti along a four-mile bike trail between his home and his job. He loads cans of gray and brown paint - obtained from the city for free - into a bucket wedged into a child seat on the back of his green mou