Committed to erasing the writing on the wall

Employee who removes graffiti waxes philosophic about its causes, future

July 31, 2000|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Ralph Epps circles the block in the Graffiti Removal Unit truck to assess the damage at Chinquapin Middle School. When he finds profanities spray-painted on the brick steps, he pulls up, unloads a plastic bucket containing a mix of foul-smelling chemicals and starts scrubbing with a broom-like brush.

Epps, 44, is one of three Baltimore school system employees trained to remove graffiti at the city's more than 180 schools. It's a job that combines chemistry, persistence and an insight into urban adolescent ills.

Instances of graffiti seem to spike during the summer, mainly because children have more free time and many schools are empty. Officials say the vandalism occurs in spurts, at a cross-section of buildings.

Once, Epps spent about a month removing all the graffiti at Morrell Park Elementary/Middle School. Other notoriously bad spots are Patterson and Southern high schools, where, he says, racial slurs are common.

"Somebody always got to stick their names up to say `I'm better than' someone else," he explains. "It's a constant battle."

"But it's not all kids, either," he says. "I have caught some adults doing it. I say, `What kind of example you setting? If you love graffiti so much, go put it on your house - you can see it every day.'"

City government employs graffiti removers, but the school system's operation, which costs about $50,000 a year, is more advanced. Water used in the high-pressure spray gun is kept in a massive tank and heated by a burner in the truck before it's applied, which helps it break down the paint.

Sometimes, Epps comes across graffiti so colorful and creative he wonders whether it qualifies as art rather than destruction of property.

Other times, the profanity and sexually explicit pictures "blow your mind."

Fighting graffiti means understanding the motivations behind it. Graffiti isn't just vandalism. It's an attempt at communication, and a pitch for public attention. Some people think failing to remove it right away creates a climate in which more serious infractions are likelier to occur.

"I am very bullish on removing graffiti immediately because it gives the wrong message if it remains on the building," says Betty Morgan, chief academic officer. "I think people in a community will treat a building the way it looks."

Epps spent six years removing graffiti full time before becoming an operations manager in January. As an urban cleaning man, he learned all kinds of things about graffiti: Black and red are the hardest colors to remove. Halloween and summer vacation are peak times. Sandblasting is a last resort because it can leave a haze - and it's a mess to clean up.

There's no need to feel discouraged about the never-ending nature of the job, he says, because making a dirty wall clean is gratification enough.

The removal process goes like this: Epps mixes a brew of about one-half "Write-Off" (a graffiti remover) and one-half paint stripper, and applies the solution to the wall or surface with a heavy-duty brush. He can tell that the spray paint is fresh if it smudges right away.

It's best to leave on the chemical solution for 10 or 15 minutes before firing up the burner that heats the water, which shoots out of a long washer gun with about 250 pounds of pressure.

Safety goggles in place, Epps sprays the wall. Sometimes, the paint melts right off. Other times, a second application of chemicals is required. For some jobs, only sandblasting - or plain, old-fashioned painting - will work.

Graffiti complaints are logged on a list that tracks when the call was received and when the mess is cleaned up. On the list recently were Patterson High, the playground at Samuel F. B. Morse, and Rosemont, Liberty and Brehms Lane elementary schools.

Epps was on his way to Chinquapin Middle School one recent Wednesday morning when he was dispatched to an "emergency" cleanup at George G. Kelson Elementary in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore. All he could find there was the name "Chico" and what appeared to be the word "Biscuit" - with an "e" on the end - on a side wall.

The damage was much worse at Chinquapin, where Epps finds profanities, gang symbols and other "tags" in abundance.

Broken glass is all around. Epps says he thinks the graffiti artists "toasted" their feat by smashing beer bottles against the newly spray painted wall.

Epps scales a chain-link fence behind the school to reach a portable classroom whose blue and gray panels are covered in writing. He brushes on the chemicals. The graffiti begins to come off quickly, so he knows the cleanup will be successful.

At least for now.

"This'll be back up by Monday," he says.

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