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Graffiti a costly problem for city and suburbs

Office workers in the Larkin Building were greeted with an eyeful one morning last month when they looked across the street at an old grain elevator.

Peering out the window, they saw that someone overnight had climbed four stories and painted a four-letter profanity 10 feet tall on the outside of the elevator.

When Joseph Petrella saw the shocking pink profanity, he saw red.

“I thought it was vulgar and unacceptable,” the Larkin Development Group CEO said.

The high-profile graffiti reported June 6 at the former Kreiner Malting Grain Elevator at 50 Elk St. illustrated how far taggers will go to achieve notoriety.

Within 12 hours, the “C word” disappeared behind a coat of black paint applied by workers from N Choops Painting with the help of a high-lift from Niagara Window Cleaning. Larkin Building crews, meanwhile, boarded up the abandoned elevator to prevent further vandalism.

“It wasn’t just the offensive word, it was the names of the individuals who painted it above the word,” Mayor Byron W. Brown said. “It gives a sense of lawlessness in the community.”

The continued defacement of public and private property by graffiti has led many municipalities to adopt a zero-tolerance policy when dealing with the arrest and prosecution of serial taggers, who leave their marks – ATAK, HERT, CRATE, MERK JR. – on buildings.

Graffiti is not solely an urban complaint. The problem has expanded beyond Buffalo and Niagara Falls to Grand Island, Lancaster, West Seneca and the Town of Tonawanda, according to reports compiled by the Regional Anti-Graffiti Task Force of Buffalo.

When Grand Island Supervisor Mary Cooke took office in January 2012, she recalled a rash of graffiti targeting traffic signs across the island. Four arrests have been made since then, including that of 19-year-old Talon Colbert, who was charged with defacing a stop sign on Stony Point Road.

Cooke wrote the victim impact statement and said she took time to select the words to express the effects of graffiti on a community’s quality of life.

“The negative impression that graffiti gives our town causes damages that cannot be measured in mere dollars,” Cooke wrote. “The deteriorating quality of life caused by this vandalism is unacceptable.”

Last year in Buffalo alone, taxpayers spent $102,000 to remove 1,900 “tags,” city officials estimated. Since 2008, Buffalo’s Anti-Graffiti Unit has removed 5,000 tags from bridges, buildings, dumpsters and benches. Unit leader Burt Mirti hits the streets daily to clean graffiti by either painting over or power-spraying clean the balloon-letter names vandals use as signatures.

The best way to combat graffiti, Mirti said, is to remove it within 24 hours.

“The 24-hour rule means the less notoriety they are getting,” said Mirti, who shared his philosophy of removal. “Remove it once, and it comes back. You remove it again, and it comes back. Usually by the third time, they won’t do it again. They’ll give up on that location.”

Richard Whitefield, 26, was one of Buffalo’s most prolific taggers when he was caught earlier this year spraying “BCUZ” in the rest room of the former Mohawk Place music club in downtown Buffalo, police said. During the investigation that followed, Whitefield admitted to two felonies and two misdemeanors in connection with similar tags he placed near the Peace Bridge and on a pedestrian walkway over Route 198.

“He crushed the city with graffiti,” said Samuel Lunetta, coordinator of the Regional Anti-Graffiti Task Force of Buffalo. “We had been looking for the kid for a while. He’s the worst tagger in the city; his style is so bad.”

Whitefield’s “BCUZ” littered Niagara Street, Hertel Avenue and the Elmwood Avenue strip. It was placed on fire hydrants and along bike paths. Whitefield – formerly of Grand Island – works at a paint shop in Buffalo, and he will likely perform 2½ hours of community service daily before he reports to the paint shop for his 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday-through-Friday shift.

At the proposed rate, it will take Whitefield 83 weeks to complete his sentence of 1,000 hours of community service. In addition, Whitefield will serve five years’ probation. Erie County Court Judge Sheila DiTullio also ordered him to pay a $1,000 fine.

The regional graffiti task force Lunetta coordinates is composed of stakeholders representing businesses, police and municipal governments. The task force practices the three Rs of graffiti control: read, record, remove.

Property owners may take an active role in the recording process by filing a police report, photographing the damage (with date) and posting a copy of the photo at the task force’s Facebook page.

Since 2005, the task force has tracked 200 arrests, including the recent arrests of two suspects apprehended at 187 Exchange St., three suspects in West Seneca and one in the Town of Tonawanda.

Since 2008, graffiti arrests by Buffalo police number 75, according to Michael DeGeorge, police spokesman.

It’s difficult to bag a tagger, said Mirti.

“It’s a small group of repeat offenders,” Mirti said. “Most of them live outside the city in the suburbs. The problem is you have to catch them in the act to prosecute.”

The city can’t remove graffiti on private property, said Mirti. In those cases, the property owner has 10 days to remove it or face a fine or appearance ticket. Recently a graffiti vandal was caught in the act of marking a $2,000 concrete bench at a South Buffalo senior center, police said.

“Some kid used markers all over it,” said South District Community Police Officer Anthony LeBron. “The paint sunk into the concrete so we really can’t remove it. The arrest was made with the help of camera surveillance.”

A person caught in the act of placing graffiti is usually charged with criminal mischief. If the damage exceeds $250, the misdemeanor becomes a felony. In addition, the New York Penal Code provides misdemeanor charges for making graffiti and for possessing graffiti instruments.

The recent death of a sky-scraping graffiti tagger in Sacramento shows the danger inherent in extreme vandalism.

A man who was found dead hanging by a rope off an 18-story Sacramento high-rise in April appeared to be a graffiti tagger, the Associated Press reported. The man apparently died accidentally of asphyxiation when he created a harness from the rope and lowered himself down the office building. A can of spray paint and a tool for etching glass were also found on the part of the balcony where the rope was anchored. It’s unclear how long the body had been hanging four floors from the top of the nearly 240-foot building.

Catching graffiti vandals in the act may be a daunting task, but deterring the taggers from repeating the act is also difficult.

A 10-week study conducted in 2008 at Mercyhurst College by students who analyzed graffiti-fighting efforts in 32 cities found the most effective deterrent is quick removal of graffiti. The least effective way to combat it was to create legal graffiti walls where taggers are encouraged to paint as an alternative to vandalizing someone’s property.

Lunetta, a retired lieutenant for the SUNY Buffalo State University Police, considered street-art muraling as a deterrent, but he said legalization takes away from the thrill.

“It’s just not the same,” Lunetta said. “Graffiti is a habit, not a hobby. The recidivism rate is high. It’s in their blood constantly.”