Taggers vs. Tech

Want to get rid of graffiti in your neighborhood? There's an app for that

David Caceres, the assistant manager of the city's go-to graffiti cleaning company, Graffiti Protective Coatings, starts his day at the same location at least once a week.

The big, white back wall of an abandoned building just north of downtown's Sixth Avenue underpass is a favorite for taggers. Even before a citizen can photograph and report the graffiti using the company's new application for the Android and iPhone, he knows there's a new tag there.

"They love this wall. It's like a big blank canvass for them," he said while photographing the graffiti on his own smart phone and sending the information to a database the company created for police to monitor trends and track individual taggers.

The new application, called myTucson or Target Graffiti, debuted locally on Sept. 1, as part of a high-tech effort to crack down on graffiti in Tucson.

The app allows users to take a photo of graffiti using their phone and send it, along with a description and GPS coordinates, to the city of Tucson, where it is sorted by location and surface type before being forwarded to a Graffiti Protective Coatings employee in the field.

With the help of this new technology, the company can usually paint over a tag within 24 hours, said Lupe Mercado, the general manager of Graffiti Protective Coatings.

"Once it's assigned, the technician gets it in his list, and if he's already in the area, he just takes care of it then and there, which is great, because you used to have to wait until the next day to get their batch of work orders," Mercado said. "Now it's real-time, so why wait until the next day when you're already there?"

Graffiti Protective Coatings cleans nearly 4,000 tags per month in Tucson alone, said Mercado, and that comes out to about 250,000 square feet of coverage per month. It takes six trucks, loaded with paint and equipment, six days a week, on the job 10 hours per day, to fight Tucson's graffiti.

While the fight is getting easier through high-tech communication between the company, the city and the police, Mercado said it's still an uphill battle.

"Now we're all talking; we're documenting and taking photos; we're passing information along to one another, and they've been catching a lot of graffiti offenders. But we're still not where we need to be," he said.

The company's annual budget from the city is $720,000, according to Marie Nemerguth, the city budget director.

Tucson Police Capt. Rick Wilson said the police have been "able to make leaps and bounds on our progress into investigating graffiti" thanks to the high-tech equipment and the partnership with the company.

"It has drastically accelerated our ability to combat this type of crime. Without it, we would be much further behind in our efforts than we are now," he said.

The myTucson/Target Graffiti app and the database aren't the only high-tech tools that Tucson Police use in their fight against graffiti. Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor recently updated the Tucson City Council on other high-tech advancements in the fight against taggers and graffiti.

Using a $150,000 grant from the Target Corporation, TPD has been installing motion-activated cameras in targeted areas—for example, near walls and buildings that taggers repeatedly hit, Villaseñor said. The cameras are linked directly with the TPD communications center, and an officer is sent out to catch the vandal in the act, if an officer is available.

From August 2009 through August 2010, Tucson Police made 391 graffiti-related arrests. They currently have eight open cases of a tagger or a "tag crew" causing more than $10,000 in damage, and 11 open cases involving less than $10,000 in damage.

"I know that people say, 'Well, in economic downturn and bad budget times, is that something you really want us to wage your resources on?' And our answer is absolutely," said Villaseñor. "We need to identify individuals who are involved in graffiti, and the only way we can do that is by going out there and taking pictures, because often, we'll find one little bit of information that allows us to hook up to many other graffiti incidents, and we can then bring a more serious charge when we apprehend the individuals."

The southside, the westside and downtown are hit hardest by graffiti, Villaseñor said, but most of the arrests are made in midtown, probably because of the dense population.

Villaseñor said that there are at least 36 known "tag crews," and that the people who participate in tagging are not just bored adolescents; some taggers are adults who are involved in narcotics, burglary and other criminal activities.

Police also scour social-networking websites to catch taggers who post pictures of their work online, Villaseñor told the council.

"A lot of graffiti artists and taggers are very proud of their work," he said. "They will post them on Youtube, MySpace or Facebook, and it's a way we can identify individuals."

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