Tucson Tagging

Those in the trenches say not enough is being done to stop the city's graffiti problem

Call it aerosol art, malicious mischief, artistic expression or criminal damage: Whatever your viewpoint, graffiti is a big problem in Tucson.

You can ignore the samples of artwork, appreciate them, live with their design and message or get rid of them. One thing is for certain: Graffiti is not going to go away.

"This city would be a mess without our program," says Michelle Phillips, executive director of the Graffiti Abatement Program in Tucson, in an e-mail. "GAPIT is a seven-day-a-week operation, and without it, you would not recognize your city," she says.

GAPIT Community Program Director Beki Quintero says their job is to "cover hate with love, repairing a hurt done to the city. We're the Band-Aid effect. Someone hurts the wall, we fix it--often over and over again.

"I've been painting over graffiti for a decade now, and I'm going to be doing this for another half-century if we don't fix the problem. I really don't want to be an old woman walking to a tagged wall with a cane in one hand and a paint roller in the other."

Graffiti has been called many things, including "the newspaper of the street." Tim Rupel is a Tucson Police Department detective who reads that "newspaper" like a message board.

As part of his job with the TPD Special Investigation Section, he reads some of the more creative scrawls for the abbreviated messages they contain. As his reference manual, he carries a nine-page dictionary containing more than 400 common acronyms that have been found spray-painted on Tucson buildings, arroyo walls, electrical boxes and bridge abutments.

Ten years ago, when he made detective and was assigned to the gang unit, he thought most graffiti was gang-related. Now he knows otherwise.

"There are actually several different classes of messages or artwork," he says. "Gang graffiti defines territories or makes a statement to a person or persons. After a shooting death, you can find RIP (rest in peace) artwork for the victim as well as threats in reaction to that violence, a publicly expressed intent for revenge."

According to the Web page of the National Alliance of Gang Investigators Associations (www.nagia.org): "Gangs use graffiti to gain recognition or express their identity." The spray-paint scrawls and coded abbreviations reflect loyalty to the gang. New gang members may be ordered to commit the offense to show their worthiness.

Gang graffiti often includes nicknames or roll calls ("placas") to enhance the reputation of the gang and/or its members. In some cases, graffiti is used to brag about crimes, and it is not uncommon to find graffiti at the scene of a burglary or other crime.

"Gang graffiti is pretty plain in content," Rupel says. "Usually, the average citizen can read the message and understand it, because those messages are intended to be comprehended by all who read them."

The veteran detective believes the gang situation in Tucson hasn't grown markedly, although that is not the case elsewhere. "Today's activity level involving Tucson gang shootings and homicides is nothing like 1995, when we had 95 homicides. Ten years ago, I went to a gang conference in Southern California. We had 400 police officers from a dozen different states. Recently, I went to the same conference, where 1,700 officers from 46 states and three different countries showed up. So while gang activity stays about the same in the Old Pueblo, nationwide as a whole, the problem is growing. And people do like to move to Tucson."

Another graffiti category that poses less of a threat of physical harm is tagging. "These kinds of guerrilla art attacks are unintelligible zigs, zags and squiggly lines that mean nothing. It's property damage, pure and simple, just to piss people off," Rupel says.

The Gang Investigators Association reports, "Taggers tend to have risk-taking personalities, are in their late teens or early 20s, and tend to come from middle- or upper-income homes. They consider vandalizing public and private property with their art as a form of entertainment."

Examples of this "artwork" can be found on bridge pillars in washes throughout the city, efforts that radiate color with their multi-hued patterns.

"There are graffiti gurus who do scenes and multiple colors," Rupel says. "These folks will practice their art expertise before applying it for public view. They believe they are artists in their own culture."

According to the detective, taggers will practice at home on blank book pages before going public. "Sometimes they graduate to practicing on the walls of their bedroom, then go to relatively inaccessible alleys to practice where their works won't be seen often before they move into full public view."

There's a harsh group of critics residing within the tagging fraternity. Neophytes who put up a sample of their work on a bridge pillar invite comment; more seasoned veterans may mark out the fledgling work as a way of labeling it amateurish and not ready for display.

One aerosol aficionado, with a street name of "Syte," says in an interview with www.graffiti.org, "Society is not embracing the artists at all, especially this movement--the only real art movement going on now in America--but people are really missing out, because they are so close-minded."

Several other known spray paint practitioners were invited to be interviewed, but declined, indicating they would rather be publicly known for their painted works than their published words.

A third graffiti category comes from dopers, speedheads and weedheads who want to get the word out. The location can be a smelly trash-lined box culvert running somewhere through town, littered with storm debris and empty spray-paint cans. One such primo gathering site abuts the affluent Williams Center complex along Broadway Boulevard, where a culvert wall contains a drawing of a stone tablet with the directive, "You shall smoke marijuana every day."

"Tagger art and the doper crowd push the button and don't care about their creations," Rupel says. "They're willy-nilly and really don't care if you and I can interpret them or not, because others in their own culture will understand."

White-supremacist graffiti--yet another form--often spells trouble. "Skinheads put out their statements to let others know they are there in the neighborhood, and others who don't belong should be aware," Rupel says. "White-supremacist groups in the Tucson area range from members of the Ku Klux Klan to meth heads who will hang out with anybody that has some dope."

A final group of graffiti practitioners believe not only in the art form but in its ability to spread the word about their chosen ideology--the occult. A favorite location is a westside site where five storm culverts meet and form a modified pentagram. "We've found sacrifices in the form of beheaded animals," says Quintero. "Quite frequently, we find satanic stuff covered over by 'God Loves You' messages."

Keeping a lid on the paint cans is nearly impossible, and paying for the damage is not cheap. "In 2004, we operated on a $220,000 budget, which didn't take us through the whole year before we had to ask for additional emergency funding," Quintero says. "In 2005, mayor and council gave us a raise to $280,000, and ... that still barely cuts it."

The full-time eradication effort hardly keeps pace. Quintero gets up every day at 4 a.m. to retrieve hotline messages of fresh paint, generating an address list for her blasting and paint crews.

The paid staff is joined by some begrudging volunteers, inmates from the Wilmot Women's Correctional Facility and Pima County juvenile offenders who contribute sweat equity as part of community service.

"Rapid response turns out to be more than just a Band-Aid effect. We have a priority response of 24-48 hours where messages involve racism, violence and vulgarity, and when we respond rapidly, graffiti trails off," says CREW (Community Renewal and Enrichment through Work) Supervisor Dave Stadle. "We're not a quick fix or the ultimate answer to juvenile delinquency, but we're a portion of that answer when we hold kids responsible. When they give back to the community through physical labor restitution, they become part of the community."

Although the number of juvenile participants varies, Stadle estimates juvenile offenders contributed nearly 5,500 hours of graffiti abatement effort in 2005.

"Visual blight and vandalism create an enormous cleanup cost to our community. The scenario worsens and spreads to adjacent areas when not attended to quickly," says B.J. Cordova, community outreach director for Tucson Clean and Beautiful, in an e-mail. "Graffiti is a continuous maintenance concern throughout the city, and our volunteers have found all forms of graffiti in all manner of places. Graffiti has been described as many things, but no matter its intent, message, visual impact or location, it is simply a form of vandalism."

Under the city's criminal-damage code, tagging is a violation of the law if done without permission. The unauthorized artwork is a misdemeanor unless the damage exceeds a certain dollar amount, in which case it becomes a felony. Generally, the penalties are equivalent to a modest slap on the wrist, perhaps with some community-service time attached.

In Maricopa County, where painted eyesores equate to millions of dollars of damage to homes and businesses each year, the County Attorney's Office has a strict prosecution policy. "Convicted graffiti vandals can receive over three years in prison and be ordered to pay full restitution to victims," reads the County Attorney's Web page. "Additionally, courts may impose fines up to $150,000 with parents of underage vandals potentially liable for up to $10,000 in fines."

Rupel says he's come across people doing graffiti several times. "Without identifying myself as a police officer, I've given these 'artists' some grief. I want them to know that the average citizen doesn't want to put up with these actions. Once they see there are numbers of citizens who don't like that kind of activity and will stand up and complain, they move on. They know police officers are bound by laws and department restrictions, but they do worry about the average citizen coming out to take independent personal corrective action."

GAPIT's Quintero agrees, adding that there is little in the way of teeth in the current local statutes; they provide only an annoying light slap on the wrist that allows the perpetrators to come back the next day looking for a new canvas. "We want these kids to be held accountable for their actions. If that doesn't happen, some community member is going to kick their butt," she says.

"We react to an increase in graffiti incidents in specific areas," says TPD Officer Dan Bell of the Rillito substation. "We've recently made several arrests, both felony and misdemeanor, involving graffiti on the northwest side. Each subject was charged with more than 30 incidents on both public and private sites with guesstimated damage at $100 per spot."

One suspect told arresting officers his efforts were "artistic." "Two of the suspects were 20 years old," says Bell. "At their age, you'd think they'd know better, but then again, you'd have to care to know better."

The national gang investigators group sums it up: "Traditionally, the chances of arrest and prosecution for graffiti crimes have been minimal. One thrill of the tagger lifestyle is to stay one step ahead of the law."

Although Quintero acknowledges frustration and recognizes her job's one-step-forward, two-steps-back conundrum, she and her crews try to maintain a positive attitude in their daily cover-up attempts.

"People are at the point where they're saying, 'Dammit, we need to do something different to get rid of this problem.' We need more arrests or a dedicated TPD graffiti unit or something. To this point, money and enforcement haven't fixed or eliminated the problem. Disappointment is a part of my job, but so is disillusionment that we are making forward progress on eradicating Tucson's graffiti problem."


Although the Graffiti Abatement Program in Tucson (624-7833) responds to reports of graffiti and takes care of it as time, staff and funding allows, private citizens can do their own cleanup using free paint from the city's Household Hazardous Waste department.

"We process and recycle about 1 1/2 million pounds of donated waste paint that citizens bring us each year, and through those efforts, we give out close to 20,000 gallons of paint to the public, free of charge," says HHW Coordinator Frank Bonillas. "City and county departments, facilities operations, parks and recreation all use our paint for graffiti abatement needs, and the public can, too."

Paint in white, tan, gray or brown hues is available in five-gallon buckets; households can receive up to three of them per year. "We gave out 3,800 of those buckets last year from our mixing station at 2440 W. Sweetwater Drive," says Bonillas.

Paint is dispensed on Friday and Saturday. Call 888-6947 for information.