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GOING AFTER THE GLUT OF GRAFFITI
BUFFALO MAY TRY TO FIGHT THE VANDALISM BY BANNING THE SALE OF SPRAY PAINT TO MINORS

Residents on Fulton Street aren't sure if they've ever met Junior, but they know his name.

So does every motorist who drives down South Park Avenue near Elk Street. The name towers high above the intersection, spray-painted in shades of blue and brown atop an abandoned malting company.

"It has been a real problem," said Danielle Beres, who lives on Fulton. "You see new graffiti every week, and it's going up all over the place."

As graffiti vandals leave their unsightly marks with growing frequency in many neighborhoods, a move is afoot in Buffalo to ban the sale of spray paint and broad-tipped markers to minors.

Supporters say graffiti is becoming a too-frequent eyesore throughout the city.

Drive along the Niagara Thruway and you'll see dozens of defaced buildings, overpasses and bridge abutments. Even some downtown buildings near the Theater District have been targets.

A number of efforts are under way across the city to combat the problem.

Most significantly, Niagara Council Member Dominic J. Bonifacio Jr. wants the Common Council to ban the sale of aerosol paint and broad-tipped markers to people under age 18. Similar laws are in effect in some cities throughout the state, including New York City.

In 1997, Lackawanna revised its graffiti laws, including a clause that makes it unlawful to sell or furnish graffiti implements to anyone under 18 without the written consent of a parent or guardian. Such items include aerosol paint, broad-tipped markers and paint sticks.

Lackawanna Police Captain Ronald Miller doesn't think the law has had any effect on graffiti. "We only have one store that sells spray paint, and it's very easy to go into Hamburg, West Seneca or Buffalo to buy the spray paint," he said.

Graffiti is damaging

Statistics show that graffiti can hurt property values, undermine businesses, encourage gangs and fuel other crimes.

"We've had more graffiti over the past year than we've probably had in at least 10 years," said Margaret Szczepaniec, a North District resident who is active in a community coalition called the Good Neighbors Planning Alliance. "And there's always a spike in graffiti when the warm weather hits."

Self-proclaimed "graffiti-busters" have stepped up campaigns to clean defaced buildings. In addition, the city is working with the national Keep America Beautiful group on a blitz called "Graffiti Hurts," which encourages the community to get involved in cleanups.

But the leader of a neighborhood group on the West Side said making a dent in the problem has been tough, noting that frustrated volunteers have removed graffiti several times this year at the same locations.

"They've been targeting every kind of building," said Robin S. Johnson, president of the Connecticut Street Association. "They've been hitting businesses, vacant buildings, garages, schools and stop signs. Everything you can possibly imagine, they've targeted."

Experts say some graffiti is tied to gangs that seek to mark their territories. Other "taggings" are done by those who fancy themselves graffiti "artists," and by underaged mischief-makers.

As Buffalo lawmakers and attorneys review Bonifacio's bill, city teenagers expressed clashing views on the plan.

"I think it would cut down on a lot of the graffiti," said 17-year-old Joshua Gilliam.

Mario Garcia, 14, also supports the law, but he doubts it would stop the sale of such items. "Kids can even buy cigarettes at a lot of stores," he said. "They'd probably still be able to get spray paint."

Proposal might backfire

Kaitlin Crum, 15, thinks the law might have unintended consequences.

"Once you make spray paint a forbidden thing, I think graffiti will get even worse," she said.

Brian Moffatt, 16, agreed, saying some might try to buy spray paint to rebel.

"It's like homework. The more you tell some (teenagers) to do it, the less they'll do."

Bonifacio conceded that restricting young people's access to graffiti tools won't solve the problem by itself.

"I'm not truly convinced that a lot of the graffiti is being done by (minors)," he said.

City leaders and community activists are considering other strategies, including:

Requiring people who buy a large quantity of spray paint to show stores either personal identification or a contractor's license.

Designating a city employee to deal exclusively with graffiti removal.

"You need to have a continuous . . . program," said Szczepaniec. "Graffiti can't be solved with a one-time hit."

Stepping up efforts to mobilize residents and businesses.

"Citizen participation is key," said James Pavel, a city employee who heads Keep Western New York Beautiful. "Government can't do it all by itself."

Quick removal effective

Anti-graffiti kits are being sent to block clubs that include videos and other aides. The trick, said Pavel, is to remove graffiti quickly. Statistics show that if graffiti is immediately cleaned off a building three times, there's a 90 percent chance the structure won't be targeted again.

Encouraging people to report all graffiti. Activists in the North District have been circulating "problem property tip sheets" via a weekly newspaper. Still, catching offenders is tough, said Deputy Police Commissioner Robert T. Chella. He said there have only been a handful of graffiti-related arrests in the past year.

"It's difficult, because they're very quick and usually very good at it," he said.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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