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As the number of graffiti-covered buildings grows in his East Side neighborhood, Masten Council Member Byron W. Brown is seething at the writing on the wall.

"Graffiti is used to make an area less desirable, to desensitize people," he said. "If you let it go up and stay up, the deterioration just gets worse and worse."

To stem the spread, Brown is proposing an anti-graffiti ordinance that takes a multipronged approach. It would include stiffer penalties for offenders, reasonable rewards for information that leads to the arrest of offenders and would make it a crime to sell spray paint and broad-tipped markers to minors.

Brown's draft proposal, which still is being reviewed by city lawyers, is based on ordinances established in other cities. It would be enforced in concert with an educational component -- designed to steer young people away from graffiti -- and practical deterrents, such as landscaping, street lighting and chemical sealers that would make graffiti removal easier.

But even Brown acknowledges that the proliferation of graffiti in his district is tied to something more ominous than mischievous child's play.

"It's a sign that there's a disease festering in the community," he said.

"In this situation, (the graffiti) appears to be used by people who are involved in drug posses. They mark their territory to say who controls this space and to say to decent citizens, 'You won't be comfortable here,' " he added.

Many of the scrawled messages -- on the sides of corner delis, vacant buildings and even some occupied residences -- are cryptic.

"Dee QBT" and "Crook 98" painted on the side of 419 Wohlers Ave. would appear to be gang tags.
At 427 Wohlers -- a residence owned by the Community Action Organization of Erie County -- the message "Tye-B rest in peace," crudely spray painted in large red letters, pays homage to a fallen comrade.

Even those with no connection know what it means.

"They're throwing signals (to each other)," explained Anwar Muflahi, manager at the Five Star Food and Beverage store at 1288 Jefferson. "They're saluting dead people on my walls."

Indeed, a cacophony of scrawled gang tags and profanities dominate the Landon Street side of the building.

"When you clean it off, they put it right back," Muflahi said. "When we redid the front of the store, we had to negotiate with them to confine the graffiti to the side of the building."

Luther Walker, president of the Delavan-Grider Block Club, said he, too, approached the culprits in his neighborhood and requested that they stop.

"We met with them three years ago because they were putting it on the houses over here, and we asked them not to. They said OK. They stopped, but a new crew is coming up," Walker said. "Eventually, they're going to give up, die out or go to jail, but you've always got a whole new crew coming up each time."

That is why he is skeptical about the effect a new ordinance would have.

"It's not going to do anything but fill the courts up," Walker said. "We can focus on (removing the graffiti), but we have to change the attitudes and the conditions in the community for some of these kids.

"What if we go out and clean up every building? Have we changed the problem? We've only removed the writing on the wall. We have to attack the problem at its root. We have to change the conditions and make it better for the kids in our community, and certain things will go away."

Melanie Sworn, president of the Rodney Avenue Block Club, said last summer her group applied for a city grant through Mayor Masiello's Neighborhood Matching Grant program to paint a large mural on the back wall of the Quality Market in Central Park Plaza.

With assistance from two artists at the Tri-Main Building, they gathered together several people, young and old, to paint what was to become the largest outdoor mural in the city, covering over layers of graffiti.

"It's been almost a year, and no one has put any graffiti back on the wall since (the mural has) been there," Ms. Sworn said.

Some of those "artists," she said, included those suspected of having painted the graffiti in the first place.

"We have tried to develop a relationship with the young people, even inviting them to participate with us in community prayer meetings," she said. "We talk to them. We know their names. They know what they're doing is wrong, and they need to be approached about taking responsibility for their actions. We ask them, 'Do you mind helping us clean this up?' "

Ms. Sworn said she has never been refused.

Brown agreed with her approach but said additional deterrents are necessary to ensure that the spread of graffiti will be curtailed.

"If we don't push these small quality-of-life things, it's going to be harder to control bigger issues," Brown said.

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