Grappling with graffiti glut


Is it me or is every inch of our city quickly being defaced by graffiti? Spray-paint scrawl now seems to cover every building, wall, fence, bridge, car, pole, bench, sign, hydrant, tree and squirrel in site.
The other morning, I even saw graffiti on one of the soiled mattresses frequently abandoned on my block. Is nothing sacred?
Someone even recently sullied the new North 46th Street underpass mural between Wallingford and Fremont before it was finished, by writing "Not Art" on it. At least he or she expressed his or her opinion clearly and concisely. That's one of the things I've never understood about graffiti: Why do the taggers go to all that trouble to write something that nobody else can read?
I'm always surprised by the suddenness of graffiti. One St. Patrick's Day morning a few years ago, I pulled up my bedroom window blinds to see several 4-foot-high letters covering the windows and frames of the building directly across from mine.
Since I'm a very light sleeper I was even more surprised that I hadn't been woken up, especially since the mirror on my nearby car was broken that night, too, and I never thought that was a coincidence.
As usual, the letters didn't combine to form any understandable words.
One night, I actually spotted a tagger in action; it's rare to spot one of these nocturnal creatures in the wild. You know they're out there, but when you actually see one, it takes a moment to register. By the time you realize what you're seeing, he's already disappeared back into the dark.
I was riding in a car about 10 p.m. when we turned down a street near where I lived, and there he was, wearing his dark hoodie, backpack and jeans, spray-painting a fence. He must have been a rookie, though, because of the early hour and because, as we approached, he ran right in front of the headlights of the moving car. He looked about 12 years old.
I went back and checked that fence periodically, and the boy never returned to finish what he had started. Could coming so close to getting caught have caused him to turn over a new can?
Samuel F. Lehtinen, 21, is one tagger who apparently hasn't learned his lesson yet.
As reported in a recent article, around 4:30 a.m. on July 14, a police officer spotted Lehtinen in a Belltown doorway with a shopping bag containing a spray-paint can and his hands allegedly covered in paint. There was fresh doorway graffiti matching the color of the can in his bag.
He was arrested, charged with property destruction and released on bail the next day.
On July 21, Lehtinen was arrested in Portland, Ore., after police received a 3:45 a.m. call that a private security guard was chasing a suspected tagger and that the suspect had stolen a cab. Police found the cab, pursued it until it crashed and apprehended Lehtinen after he fled on foot.
His charges include attempting to elude an officer, reckless driving and third-degree robbery, among others.
Seattle Police believe Lehtinen may be responsible for some of the large numbers of "Zeb" tags that began blanketing several neighborhoods in July. I noticed these tags from my Metro bus morning commute through Wallingford, Fremont, lower Queen Anne, Belltown and downtown before he was caught. At the time, I even wondered if the tagger rode my bus route.
Unfortunately, Seattle police don't think Lehtinen created all the "Zeb" tags, so "Zeb" may ride again.
If there's any justice, Lehtinen's punishment would be to spend eight hours a day, five days a week, cleaning and painting over graffiti, but that task usually falls on government agencies and private property owners.
According to a couple of Seattle Times articles, in 2009, the City of Seattle spent $1.8 million cleaning graffiti from public property, Seattle Public Utilities spent almost $1 million and King County Metro Transit spent $734,000.
Private business and homeowners in Seattle can be fined $100 per day, with a maximum penalty of $5,000, if graffiti isn't removed promptly from their property.
Graffiti is clearly no longer just a nuisance. It has become a major financial and emotional drain on our communities. Some violent gangs use it to mark their territories and intimidate neighbors.
So what's the solution? Harsher penalties for convicted taggers? Increased spending for education, prevention and removal? Outlaw the sale of spray paint? Ignore it and hope it's just a trend that will die down?
Is there a solution at all, or is this a permanent problem like traffic, pollution, rats and ineffective politicians that has become another element of daily urban life that we will just need to accept and endure?
I'm afraid the illegible writing is on the wall.[[In-content Ad]]