Fighting a Determined Battle Against Graffiti

Painting Over Graffiti
Linda Bethea, an employee of the citys Department of Public Works, paints over graffiti around Ninth and Q streets in Northwest. (Craig Herndon For The Washington Post)
By Eric M. Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 23, 2005

Bye-bye, BORF.

The yellow sidewalk painting signed by the omnipresent graffiti "artist'' disappears into a colorful puddle after Bernard Green blasts it with a water jet pressurized to 3,500 pounds per square inch.

Green and his co-workers from the District Department of Public Works are soldiers in a long-running war against graffiti in the city. The players, the locations, the styles may have changed over the years, but the theory remains the same.

"You put it up, we're going to take it down," said Michelle Rucker, who supervises the three DPW graffiti removal teams that responded to 1,121 complaints in 2004, up from 600 the year before. The city also pays a private contractor to clean graffiti high above street level.

The crews tackle the complaints as they come in, although gang graffiti and vulgarities jump to the top of the list, said Dennis Butler, DPW's program coordinator. The service is available free by calling the Mayor's Citywide Call Center at 202-727-1000.

The city will automatically remove graffiti from vacant structures and requests permission to do so from the owners of occupied ones. Sometimes gaining permission is surprisingly difficult. In one case, an owner refused to allow the crews to remove graffiti on her home because she feared that the power-washer would damage the building. She was finally persuaded otherwise. Afterward, she was so happy with the work that she exuberantly thanked the crews and took photos of their handiwork.

"I think it's great," said Guang Li, the owner of a building on Ninth Street NW. One day last week he saw the crews working down the street and asked if they could blast some graffiti off the side of his building. The only persuading Li needed was that it was free.

Butler and Rucker said gang-related graffiti has exploded in recent years, and DPW crews sometimes are accompanied by police when they remove the "tags," or letters and symbols that represent a gang.

At Harriet Tubman Elementary School at 13th and Irving streets NW, the graffiti removal crews will soon come back for a fourth time to paint over the spray-painted "STC,'' the initials of a Latino gang also known as Street Thug Criminals, and "LV,'' which stands for Vatos Locos, a rival gang.

"We do all we can do," Butler said. "We fall behind, get ahead, fall behind, get ahead."

Gang members use graffiti to mark their territories, and the prevalence of their tags is a good indicator of gang activity. The greatest numbers of graffiti sites are in Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights, Mount Pleasant and Shaw, all fast-gentrifying areas where rowhouses now fetch upwards of $700,000, Butler said. Metropolitan Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey declared a crime emergency to deal with gang-related violence in Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant two years ago.

The crews get rid of graffiti in one of three ways: scraping, painting or blasting.

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