Graffiti Vandals Targeted -- `Taggers' Leave Expensive Marks

A South Seattle man out to leave his mark on the world might still be at it were it not for business leaders out to snag a "tagger."

A police officer once caught the man, then 19, red-handed, with a bright red marker pen in hand, scrawling his "tag" on the back window of a Metro bus on Capitol Hill. Another time, officers in an unmarked patrol car watched as he left his mark on light poles, parking meters, a mailbox and a bus shelter in the University District.

And on yet another occasion, a passer-by alerted police after witnessing the young man etching graffiti into the acrylic-plastic window of a Capitol Hill apartment building.

Police say the young man has been a major player in graffiti vandalism, which has grown into a multimillion-dollar problem in Seattle. But until November 1999, that tagger is off the streets and in jail.

Seattle, like other major cities, has experienced a substantial increase in graffiti, the rogue artwork left on property by taggers, so-called because their graffiti usually includes their tag - their signature, moniker or nickname.

Authorities have tried to combat graffiti on several fronts. A couple of years ago, the Seattle City Council, at the urging of City Attorney Mark Sidran, adopted a public-nuisance ordinance that set forth civil penalties for private-property owners who fail to remove graffiti from their property.

And the city has a three-man Graffiti Ranger crew that works full time year-round removing graffiti from public property.

"One of the greatest deterrents of graffiti is prompt removal of the graffiti," said Lori Mayfield, an aide in Sidran's office.

Another deterrent may be the efforts of citizens groups to see taggers punished for their work. Those found guilty of the vandalism can be charged with malicious mischief or property destruction and prosecuted.

The Downtown Seattle Association and Crime Stoppers of Seattle-King County have teamed up to establish a graffiti reward program, offering $100 for information leading to the arrest and charging of graffiti vandals downtown.

And the University Rotary and a longtime community businessman two years ago put up $15,000 to fund a campaign to create a "graffiti-free zone" in the University District, which had been one of the two areas in the city most heavily and consistently hit by taggers.

The money was used to set up a hotline to report vandalism, "and we started immediately getting phone calls," said Neil Heiman, executive director of the Greater University Chamber of Commerce, which now oversees the anti-graffiti campaign.

The University Chamber started its own reward program, offering up to $1,000 for reporting graffiti artists.

The 19-year-old, Brady Joseph Trainor, who was caught tagging and caused damage estimated in the hundreds of dollars, might have gotten away with a slap on the wrist had it not been for pressure on city prosecutors and the court system by University District business leaders.

After Trainor's three graffiti incidents and an isolated shoplifting citation, city prosecutors recommended he receive 60 days in jail. One municipal judge sentenced him to 30 days in jail but converted the jail time to 120 hours of community service, meaning he would spend no time in jail beyond the time he spent awaiting trial.

But Heiman says the University Chamber rallied in a letter-writing campaign and made phone calls to the court and prosecutors. And when Trainor, now 20, was hauled back into court for failing to complete conditions of his probation, another judge gave him 700 days in jail. So, even with time off for good behavior and credit for time served while awaiting trial, he is to remain in jail until November 1999.

"Graffiti is not considered a major crime," Heiman said. "We believe that this tagger received a stronger message about how the community feels about graffiti vandalism because of the intervention by the Chamber.

"While graffiti may be a symptom of deeper social issues, it creates a negative climate repellent to residents, workers, visitors and customers of district businesses."

As in other cities, authorities here have found that graffiti scrawled or etched on buildings, bridges and bus shelters is not simply the work of youthful gangs linked to criminal activities, but individual taggers or tagger crews associated with the hip-hop subculture.

Seattle police Detective Rod Hardin, a graffiti-emphasis specialist in the Police Department's gang unit, said tagger graffiti is more likely to be the work of youths at risk with low self-esteem and out to establish identity and recognition for themselves among their peers.

Authorities have learned that taggers here and elsewhere communicate with each other, frequently pointing out favorite tagging areas, sometimes through Web sites on the Internet.

Hardin says it cost private-property owners and taxpayers roughly $3 million last year to have graffiti painted out or removed.

"The sad truth is that the vandalism done to some property can be so damaging that it can never be restored to its original condition," Hardin said.

Charles E. Brown's phone message number is 206-464-2206. His e-mail address is:

----------------- Fighting graffiti -----------------

Detective Rod Hardin, a graffiti-emphasis specialist with the Seattle Police Department's gang unit, suggests ways to combat graffiti:

-- If you see graffiti vandalism in progress, call 911. Crime Stoppers of Seattle-King County offers a $100 reward for information leading to the arrest and charging of a graffiti vandal. Callers to Crime Stoppers, 206-343-2020, do not have to give their name.

-- When graffiti appears on your home or apartment building, make a police report. Call the police nonemergency number, 206-625-5011.

-- After police document the graffiti vandalism, remove or paint over it immediately. For free paint (white, gray or beige), call 206-386-4093.

-- Ask merchants in your neighborhood to remove graffiti from their buildings.

-- Call the Graffiti Hotline, 206-684-7587, to report graffiti on public property (street signs, retaining walls, poles, bridges, mailboxes, etc.)

-- Volunteer to paint out graffiti in your neighborhood. In Seattle, call 206-684-5004 for information.