There is a war going on. It started in hollowed-out buildings in bleak industrial wastelands. It spread to the city's best streets. Now it leaches into the 'burbs.
It is guerrilla warfare, hit-and-run, fought mainly after dark and out of sight. The weapons are spray paint and masks. The victims are business owners and folks who take care of their homes. The casualties are good neighborhoods getting a bad name and reviving ones being held back.
It is us against METH, against ATAK, against HERT, against a platoon of vandals and defacers. The so-called graffiti "artists" range from teenage pranksters to rebels without a cause to hard-core antisocials. By making their mark, or "tag," on everything from buildings to businesses to bridge abutments, they mar quality of life, do thousands of dollars in damage, assault property values and attack neighborhoods.
The cops recently won a big one, taking down Eric Osborne and Christopher Fargo. They say they caught the two with five cans of spray paint 10 feet up a wall at downtown Ferguson Electric. Osborne is supposedly METH, a tag more common around town than Barnes billboards. Fargo is allegedly ZEN, another notorious "tagger." The same day, NFTA cops charged Sam Shannon and Deric Slaughter with defacing the downtown bus terminal.
What was once seen as a teenage prank or urban art has crossed a line. It's the "broken windows" effect, where minor crimes -- left unchecked -- convey a sense of lawlessness that brings down neighborhoods and scares people off. Once limited to factory sites, no part of town -- or some suburbs -- are untouched. From Elmwood to Hertel, from Niagara Street to Jefferson, from Kenmore to Cheektowaga, the blight spreads. Forever Elmwood posted a $1,000 reward for information on graffiti crimes.
The industrial stretch of Niagara is a moonscape cratered with bubble-lettered tags. Lt. Sam Lunetta, driving down Niagara Street on a recent morning, spotted a METH "tag" 80 feet up the side of an abandoned factory. "They must have rappeled off the roof to do that," said Lunetta, of the regional anti-graffiti task force.
Some still dismiss it as urban art. But when the canvas is the side of a store, the door of an apartment building or a bridge overpass seen by thousands of drivers, it is as serious as a mortgage payment, as real as a foreclosure notice. It is no joke to business owners barely scraping by, or to families with life savings tied up in a house and a neighborhood.
Greg Sich owns G&L Auto Body off Tonawanda Street. Vandals turned the building into a mass of graffiti.
"I'm trying to run a business, and this scares a lot of older customers away," Sich said. "I gotta repaint it or sandblast it off the brick. You're destroying peoples' property. It's costing a lot of people a lot of money."
Police say hard-core vandals Derek "Merk" Thurlow and Fernando "Lions" Godinez, nailed last year while marking a South Buffalo factory, did $100,000 of graffiti damage to the city in recent years.
"It's a crime," said Lunetta. "The losers are communities and property owners."
Although inner-city gangs use graffiti to mark turf, most markings aren't gang-related. Some vandals are teens on the fringe of skateboard culture getting a cheap thrill. Others are 20-something, khaki-wearing hip-hop wannabes, getting off on the vibe of straddling the law. The worst are hard-core types lifting their leg to society.
"Some of them you can reach," said Pam Beal, head of the local anti-graffiti task force. "But the hard-core types won't even talk to us."
Cops are cracking down. Judges are wising up. Fines and community service may soon turn into jail time. It is about time.
Still think it's art? Then throw a graffiti party at your house.