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How to Give Graffiti the Brush-Off
By Alison Pence
The last week of June, I noticed that several of the houses along Church Street had been struck by graffiti. What's worse, some local restaurants had had their plate-glass windows etched by vandals. Then in July, I saw a huge red insignia scrawled on the side of an apartment building at 27th and Sanchez. (This graffiti was so glaring, a fire truck rolled up the next day and attempted to hose it off.)
In August, a series of smudgy black tags appeared on 24th Street. One piece of graffiti was on the vacant Bakers of Paris storefront, and it spelled out the word "BROKER" (or was it "BROKEN"?). Another scribble obscured the "No Left Turn" sign that nags drivers as they leave the Bell Market parking lot.
This all got me to thinking: Are Noe Valley residents losing the war against graffiti? Or do we just need to be reminded of ways to fight back?
After a few weeks of investigation, I now feel my second notion is more to the point. I've found that there are many people in Noe Valley working hard to control graffiti and that homeowners can do a lot to discourage tagging on their property.
For many years, the East & West of Castro Street Improvement Club has been stamping out graffiti on and around 24th Street. Following in the footsteps of club founder Fred Methner, current president Paul Kantus (647-3753) regularly scouts the neighborhood, looking for graffiti to paint out. His group also watches the city parks, bus shelters, and telephone poles for unwelcome signage.
Kantus says he and his cohorts are eager to share their expertise with you if you would like to claim a corner of Noe Valley as your own and keep it clean. He will supply you with paints and brushes and a commercial graffiti remover for smooth surfaces like the glass at bus shelters.
"Community involvement is very important to keep graffiti under control," says Kantus. "We're always looking for new people to join in the fight." His best advice to homeowners is to always have an extra can of paint handy.
Another good graffiti-buster is a hotline provided by the city's Department of Public Works (DPW). By dialing 241-WASH, you can arrange for a city worker to come by and paint out graffiti on your business or home. (If you do not own your residence, just get the owner to sign a permission slip.)
According to Sandy Cuadra, coordinator of the Graffiti Abatement Program, DPW has four trucks equipped with a special paint-matching computer. The driver will scan your building color into the laptop and mix your color, then paint out your graffiti and leave you with a gallon of matched paint for free. Cuadra's department can also treat graffiti on brick and concrete with a high-pressure baking soda and water mixture.
If you are tagged a second time, she might not be able to get to you right away, Cuadra says, but if the graffiti is gang-related or profane, your building will be moved to the top of the list.
How do you know if it's gang-related? "The most identifiable markers are roman numerals," says Cuadra. "The numbers stand for the streets the gangs often use in their names," she explains. She stresses, however, that most of the tags she has seen in Noe Valley have not been connected to gangs.
DPW will also paint over all public property that is not overseen by other departments. In other words, Muni handles the bus stops, Park and Rec handles the parks, the school district handles the schools, and Parking and Traffic handles the street signs. Response times for these departments vary, so if you live near a public area that gets tagged repeatedly, you might want to volunteer to take care of it yourself.
To make this job easier, DPW offers a volunteer program in which you or your group can receive trash cans, brooms, bags, paints, and brushes. Cuadra suggests that as an individual you could maintain a small area or as a group you could hold a regular cleanup day.
The Ingleside Police Station is also very active in discouraging graffiti. Captain Rick Bruce has two officers who are dedicated to graffiti abatement in the outer Church Street area: Officers Ed Collins and David Wright. I talked with Officer Wright and learned about Ingleside's Paint-Over Program.
In this program, people caught scrawling graffiti are required to repaint the damaged areas. For instance, the Upper Noe Recreation Center at Sanchez and Day was heavily tagged over the Fourth of July weekend. Two weeks later, almost everything was painted over by youths in the Ingleside program. Unfortunately, the Paint-Over Program has only gray, white, and beige paint, so it may not be able to match the original. But if you see graffiti in Noe Valley south of Cesar Chavez Street, call the station at 553-1603 with the address and general color. If your property is tagged and you sign a waiver about the color, Ingleside will paint that, too.
If you live in the part of Noe Valley covered by Mission Station (north of Cesar Chavez), leave word with Noe Valley beat officer Lois Perillo at 558-5404, or call Sergeant Dan Linehan, the station's graffiti troubleshooter, at 558-5400.
Officer Wright noted that Ingleside was also running a sports program to try to rechannel the energies of these young people. As mentioned before, most taggers are not gang members but rather groups of kids or "crews" taking risks and competing for recognition. Rarely are graffiti taggers staking out territory for other illegal acts, he said.
Plants and Lights a Good Deterrent
Meanwhile, there are many things that you can do to protect your home and discourage tagging. Putting in plants and flowers, installing motion detectors, and sealing masonry around your home all will help fend off graffiti.
As for plants, Floorcraft Nursery recommends climbing pyracantha, coral passion vine, or bougainvillea, a hardy flowering plant that comes in many bright colors. You can cover a wall for about $30. If you decide to plant shrubs or create another sort of barrier, make sure that you will not shelter an intruder or obscure the entrance to your home.
Both Tuggey's Hardware on 24th Street and Cole Hardware on Mission sell motion sensors with lights for $25 to $60. Some of the sensors even ring a bell or alarm in your house. Besides discouraging vandals, good outdoor lighting assists pedestrians and makes coming home pleasurable.
Percy Wright, of Cole Hardware, offered her secret weapon against graffiti: floor wax. "An acrylic floor wax applied on your house after painting makes graffiti easy to remove. When they filmed Sister Act here, they bought cases of it," she said. "Just wash the graffiti off with the wax and reapply the wax. It's much easier and less expensive than repainting."
Tuggey's owner Denny Giovannoli also had a tip: "[To remove graffiti] we've found that silicone spray works best -- both on spray paint and felt-tip pen -- because it doesn't take your house paint off. The problem with the graffiti removers is that they strip the paint, too." A small can of silicone spray costs about $4.
The one question no one seemed able to answer was what to do about graffiti etched on glass. This form of vandalism is especially discouraging, since diamond-cutters and other tools are being used to permanently mark the glass. Many store owners are not insured for this, and a new front window can cost $1,000. This summer, Regent Thai restaurant at 29th and Church was scarred within days of opening.
I called Tap Plastics (864-7360) to see if the store had any suggestions. "You could try a clear window tint," said Manager Mike Ackley. "It runs $1.10 per square foot, and we can recommend a professional glazier who charges $3 per square foot for installation." Then if the window tint gets scratched, the shop can "lift off" the tint and reapply more.
Not exactly a cheap solution. Still, leaving a tag only invites more tagging. Everyone I interviewed for this story agreed that immediate removal of graffiti was the best method of controlling it. So if you are tagged, call the police, remove or cover up the graffiti, and save that bucket of paint for the next time.