Work detail targets graffiti Spray-painting vandals who leave 'tags' behind face hours of cleanup duty

July 31, 1998|By Paula Lavigne | Paula Lavigne,SUN STAFF

Graffiti vandals wielding spray cans of paint may be forced to tote spray bottles of industrial cleaner instead if city police catch them hanging their "tags" in Baltimore.

Tags -- the trademark initials incorporated into a design -- have been landing the artists 400 to 800 hours each of scrubbing off or painting over graffiti on walls, signs, mailboxes, bus shelters, doorsteps and other vulnerable surfaces.

City officials and neighborhood representatives said they hope the cleanup detail makes the spray can slingers realize that buildings and bridges are not canvases, but belong to neighborhoods where people live and work.

Police Officer Kenneth Driscoll said graffiti cleanup has deterred some convicted vandals. Driscoll named six men ages 18 to 23 -- some with a formal art education background -- convicted of malicious destruction of property this year and ordered to community-service cleanup work.

Four months into his 400-hour sentence, Chris Miranda, 20, of Baltimore covers up the graffiti on electrical boxes along Maryland Avenue with a roller of dripping silver-gray paint. He has 18 months to complete the punishment, and is spending 10 hours a day, three days a week on the task while also working as a restaurant cook.

"I regret getting arrested," he said, adding that the punishment was severe enough to discourage him from putting up any more tags.

Miranda said he understood that people didn't appreciate them, but wouldn't say whether he regretted the acts of vandalism. He described his work as an art that requires talent and an outdoor medium.

"More people see it," he said. "You can find it if you want to see it and not have it put in a gallery by people who think they know what art is."

Edith Dotson, a city employee who supervises the Baltimore City Off the Wall Graffiti Team, which includes paid workers and those under court order, said she didn't know how a bunch of jumbled letters could be considered art. But if the vandals believe their tag designs are art, she said, it will be all the more painful for them to "buff out" their work.

The vandals work for Dotson and Charles L. Smith, director for field operations at the Midtown Community Benefits District, an area service provider run by four community associations and financed by a property-tax surcharge.

Smith, who creates stained-glass windows, said forcing the graffiti creators to wipe out their tags is like someone ordering him to break one of his windows. He gave the vandals credit for being talented artists, but said they were channeling their creativity in the wrong direction.

"They don't recognize our neighborhoods as neighborhoods," he said. "They don't think of houses as places where people live."

While spots of graffiti may seem like a minor problem at first, he said, they could be the first crack in the plaster to cause an entire community to crumble.

Tags may be mistaken for gang graffiti marking turf, Smith said, and when buyers, investors or potential renters see them in a neighborhood, they might be scared off.Graffiti that are not removed are like a broken window that goes unrepaired, he said -- suggesting that one act of vandalism left unnoticed will encourage others and bring down neighborhood quality.

When Smith explained that point to 23-year-old Demetrius Fuller, the former graffiti sprayer said he saw "the big picture."

Fuller had been creating tag art for a month when he was caught this spring -- along with Miranda and 23-year-old Chris Falk -- defacing a Jones Falls Expressway bridge near the Maryland Institute, College of Art, Watson said. Fuller was sentenced to 400 hours of cleaning duty, while Falk received 720 hours for two incidents.

Fuller, who moved to Baltimore from Windsor, Conn., three years ago, said he wants to be an elementary school art teacher. And he said he would never do tag art again.

"Edith Dotson and Charles Smith told me about the rowhouses and the historic aspect of the neighborhood and the community," he said, "how there's a lot of pride in terms of preserving it and holding on to it.

"It got me thinking of it in different terms than I thought of it at first."

Testimony by area residents during his District Court trial convinced Fuller that tag art could scare people off if they think it's marking gang territory, he said.

Though he's turning away from graffiti, Fuller said, he still considers tags to be art.

"But there's a lot of art I don't like, don't appreciate or have respect for," he said. "[Tag art] does use creativity and innovation, but I don't think it's appropriate."

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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