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Taggers leave traces all over

TRIB TOWN: Some businesses have paint handy to keep pace with graffiti
by: JIM CLARK, ¿Por Qué No? taqueria owner Bryan Steelman power-washes his North Mississippi Avenue storefront. The dark paint on the side of the buidling covers graffiti.

At least eight times in the past month, Bryan Steelman has arrived at his Mexican restaurant on North Mississippi Avenue to discover graffiti on the exterior wall. The graffiti is always a different hastily scrawled 'tag,' or nickname that vandals use to identify themselves.

Steelman has two cans of paint at the ready - his business is painted coral and green - to do a quick touch-up job when vandals strike.

'There's nothing artistic about it,' Steelman said. 'And usually something is spelled wrong.'

Steelman, president of the Mississippi Avenue Business Association, says graffiti is popping up along the street more than ever before. Indeed, a five-minute walk down the street reveals graffiti tags on nearly every home, building and garbage can.

The few exceptions include the red brick building that houses the Albina Youth Opportunity School and some old, wooden benches near Mississippi Pizza. Where there isn't graffiti, there are squares of fresh paint that obviously cover graffiti.

'I've lived here for 10 years, and I've never seen so much graffiti,' said David Turk, who lives above Steelman's ¿Por Qué No? taqueria. 'It's really a mess.'

Problem extends across city

The increased graffiti on Mississippi Avenue is indicative of a growing problem throughout Portland, according to Marcia Dennis, the sole employee at the city's Graffiti Abatement Services program. From December 2006 through March 21, 2007, reports of graffiti are up 44 percent over the same time period the previous year.

As far as Dennis can tell, there's no particular reason for the significant increase.

'Public and private property is just getting wasted,' Dennis said. 'We're seeing more extensive, more filled-in pieces.'

The 'piecers,' as Dennis calls them, produce large, colorful displays that some people consider to be art. But Dennis bristles at that word.

'If it's done without permission, it's vandalism,' she said.

Dennis estimates that 15 percent to 18 percent of graffiti is gang-related, and most of it is done in east Portland. Gang graffiti, she says, usually includes the number 13 or 18 for the L.A.-based 13th Street and 18th Street gangs that have branches in Portland.

Gang graffiti tends to be done by school-age kids, Dennis says, while most other graffiti is done by adults.

According to Dennis, putting a photograph of graffiti in the newspaper or on television only emboldens the vandals.

'The mind-set of the graffiti vandal is so warped, even getting arrested gives them notoriety,' she said. 'We've seen people do more damage after they've been arrested.'

The penalties, Dennis says, are too light for graffiti vandals. First-time offenders usually are sentenced to probation, community service and a fine. Repeat offenders or probation violators end up spending a few months in prison.

But catching vandals is difficult.

'They're fast, and they do it in the dark,' she said.

'I've never caught anyone doing graffiti on this street,' Steelman added, referring to Mississippi Avenue. 'If I did, I'd probably say something to them.'

Dennis would prefer property owners to stay quiet and dial 911. Yelling at vandals, she said, just scares them away for the night. She said a detailed description of the criminal allows officers to track them down right after the crime is committed.

She also gets frustrated with businesses that continue to cover up their graffiti without taking a photo or filing a report with her division. Dennis estimated her graffiti database has a half-million entries, only a fraction of the actual graffiti throughout the city.

Bare wall attracts paint

At Pistils Nursery, between North Beech and Failing streets on Mississippi Avenue, employee Mandy Rose estimates she and her co-workers cover up grafitti about once a week.

The building has a bare wall that faces an empty lot, and it is constantly being vandalized, she said. The most recent tag, of a design repeated 20 times down the side of the building, is 5 feet high on that bare wall.

'We haven't covered it up yet because we know that something else will replace it,' Rose said.

No one at Pistils ever has reported graffiti to Dennis' office.

While the increase in graffiti is a minor inconvenience to business owners along Mississippi, Dennis said it's becoming a major inconvenience throughout the city.

She estimated that a dozen city agencies, including Parks and Recreation and the Portland Water Bureau, spend about $1 million a year cleaning up graffiti or replacing vandalized property. Her office has $200,000 each year to provide cleanup services for homeowners and small-business owners.

'It's just the stupidest crime there is,' she said.

The Graffiti Abatement Services hot line number is 503-823-4824. Reports also can be filed online at www.portlandonline.com/oni.

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