Tagging Trials

Community groups step up to fight graffiti

With municipal budgets written in red, nonessential items like graffiti abatement are falling off the to-do list.

To fill the void, members of more than 150 neighborhood organizations have loosely banded together on a mission to vaporize vandalism in Tucson. The project operates under the acronym of NoTAG, or Neighbors Organized to Abolish Graffiti.

"I still have the same oversized social conscience I had when I was 17," says retiree Pat Rigg. "In my youth, I was positive I could fix the world if I only had the chance. Now I know I can't fix the big-ticket items, but I can help make a few things better, and one of them is keeping my neighborhood free from graffiti."

She carries a big plastic bucket filled with paint removers, scrapers, sponges and the like in her car to offer up a rapid response to taggers.

"I try to notice any new graffiti in my neighborhood and get rid of it that same day if possible. If these samples of 'art' are obliterated within 24 hours--and then again as quickly as taggers try to replace them--the 'artists' tend to move on. Leaving graffiti offerings on display only invites more aerosol art and brings in additional ne'er-do-wells."

Volunteer John Cabrera is so dedicated to wiping out this kind of vandalism that he goes mobile, with bucket and scraper, into various parts of the community to stop and clean wherever needed.

"Residents who don't take quick, remediative action shouldn't be surprised when they get hit hard by graffiti," he says. "The normal cycle is that when a neighborhood starts to clean things up, taggers rebel for awhile. This is the critical stage when the neighborhood can't back down, or taggers win. It takes a consistent, ongoing cleaning effort before taggers eventually get the message that they and their artwork aren't wanted."

Joe Borunda is a teacher and a graffiti battler as time allows.

"When I was growing up, my parents used to tell me, 'We might have a poor house, but it can at least be a clean house.' Now that I'm an adult and have scraped together a down payment on my own house, I'm in the same situation," he says. "I live in a humble neighborhood, but with a little effort at graffiti cleanup, it can still look like a nice neighborhood instead of an unapproachable ghetto."

Meg Johnson coordinates volunteer efforts in her midtown neighborhood.

"We can still rely on the city for the big stuff, but the response is slower and covers less than it used to," she says. "It's a tough battle to fight, but you can't give up on it, or you'll end up looking like an inner-city neighborhood. Our war has just begun. We all need to step up and report graffiti, because the earlier it gets reported, the sooner it disappears."

Although budgetary woes have caused governmental entities to move graffiti abatement to the bottom of the to-do pile, and the city of Tucson Community Services Department is no longer giving out graffiti-removal supplies, they're still sponsoring workshops on the subject of controlling the problem.

"We started these educational programs about two years ago, and to date, 200 concerned citizens have attended and been certified by the city to conduct cleanup missions. And as long as there is community interest, we'll keep holding these workshops on a periodic basis," says Becky Flores, neighborhood services workshop coordinator.

Community activist Robert Sheinhouse will conduct the next session, from 6 to 7 p.m., Monday, March 23, at the Himmel Branch of the Pima County Public Library, 1035 N. Treat Ave.

"Graffiti is a symptom of other underlying social issues, and I don't have solutions for those problems," he says. "It is important to acknowledge that the amount of graffiti in the city (estimated to be between 150,000 and 200,000 tags every year) is beyond what any single entity can hope to handle, both in terms of logistics and expense. But I do believe we can't rely on government to solve everything--we need to rely on ourselves, and keeping neighborhoods clean is a simple function that can easily be shifted from government back to neighborhoods. I believe a healthy society requires individuals to participate in and take responsibility for the health and well-being of their community."

Three ways to report graffiti in Tucson 1. Call: 792-CITY (792-2489)

2. E-mail graffiti@tucsonaz.gov

3. Fill out a form at the City Web site