Thursday, January 06, 2005

A real "understanding" of tagging

Photo by Alan Bamberger

Daniel Homsey, Mayor Newsom's D5 Liaison, put together a panel---Department of Public Works employees and police who deal with the problem---to discuss graffiti in District 5 at last Wednesday night's SF5Together meeting. Early in the meeting, someone in the audience rightly pointed out that "graffiti" is too tame a term to adequately describe the damage the new generation of "tagger"/vandals are doing in the city, and Homsey agreed.

Homsey, a native San Franciscan, said he has "a passion" for addressing the issue of tagging/vandalism in the city, and he emphasized that city government has a "zero tolerance" for this kind of vandalism. He explained why the new anti-graffiti ordinances that put the responsibility for erasing/painting over graffiti on private property were necessary: it isn't that the city is blaming the victims---i.e., property owners---for the crime, but because the city could no longer afford to deal with the increased volume of tagging on both public and private property, especially in a time of city budget deficits.

The police and the DPW workers provided 5Together some information on the problem:

The city has been spending more than $1 million a year cleaning up graffiti in the city.

Over the last 6 months, DPW has received 705 calls about graffiti on 1051 buildings, 915 signs, and 243 trash cans.

DPW has a crew of 14 and works 7 days a week on graffiti vandalism.

Most tagger/vandals are adult males, often from outside the city. Police described a recent case in which they arrested an adult man and several juveniles from Santa Rosa who "bombed" 26 businesses on Haight St. The adult spent 17 days in jail when he couldn't make bail, had his driver's license revoked, was hit with a stay-away order, and has to pay restitution for the damage done. Police on the graffiti/vandal patrol are now coordinating their efforts with the District Attorney's office and the courts to ensure that offenders---especially repeat offenders---are tracked and punished.

Interestingly, the police say that most tagging in SF is not gang-related. Instead, it's "peer-related": young males competing with each other to do the most visible and distinctive tagging/vandalism in the city. The grafffit/vandalism unit is making 3-4 arrests a week citywide. They urge citizens concerned with graffiti to attend court hearings of offenders to let judges know that the community cares about this issue and to ensure that offenders are adequately punished.

On the "broken windows" approach to crime, the police emphasize the importance of erasing tagging within 48 hours. Otherwise, graffiti attracts more taggers and "bleeds" from one street to another.

DPW's Merle Goldstone described the city's Graffiti Watch program, wherein residents are encouraged to adopt 4-block areas on transit corridors and near schools. Volunteers are asked to make a 2-year commitment. DPW will then train them and provide the tools to do the job. Goldstone said that there will be kick-off event for a District 5 Graffiti Watch campaign---it's already been done in D3---that will take place in March. To report graffiti, call 28-CLEAN (282-5326) or email For information about Graffiti Watch, contact Goldstone at

No one at the meeting mentioned the great disservice outgoing D5 Supervisor Matt Gonzalez did to the anti-vandalism cause in the city, so I'll do it: Gonzalez let a graffiti "artist" disfigure his office walls in the name of "art," which is the worst possible message to send to taggers; it legitimizes the vandalism that disfigures so much of the city, particularly on Haight St. and along the Divisadero corridor in District 5. I stuck my head in Gonzalez's old office last Saturday to take a look at the bogus art, but the office had already been painted for incoming supervisor Mirkarimi. I could still smell the fresh paint, which struck me as a good symbol for the new Mirkarimi term of office.

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