Graffiti plagues Springs neighborhoods

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Graffiti may seem like a modern problem, but the urge to mark walls harks back to cave dwellers.

In the Springs, that urge has become more common of late, and residents and community watchdogs are concerned.

There are tags running the length of the temporary fence surrounding what was formerly Paul’s Resort on Verano Avenue, and tags covering the long-shuttered Uncle Patty's roadhouse on Boyes Boulevard. Vandals have marred mailboxes and fences and gates in the Springs, as well as the new sidwalk curbs snaking along Highway 12.

Michael Acker, a collage artist and Springs historian, has a fairly generous take on the practice. “I think some graffiti is art,” Acker said. “It’s meant as a kind of communication.”

But the tags that have begun popping up in greater numbers in his neighborhood are not candidates for Acker’s artistic largesse. “Context is everything, and this particular graffiti isn’t meant as art. It’s ego,” said Acker. “It’s not approved by anybody. There’s something about the intention of the person doing it.”

According to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office, people who commit graffiti are generally males between 13 and 17 years old; 72 percent of them are under age 16.

Typically, they deface property for one of three reasons: for excitement, for a sense of control or for the rush associated with the element of risk. Experts describe most graffiti as a “youthful rite of passage,” a phase of experimental behavior that is generally not malicious. So-called “ideological graffiti,” like gang tags, is different, and meant to express hostility or grievance.

Regardless of provenance, law enforcement officials advise that all graffiti should be removed as quickly as possible – ideally within 24 hours, according to Jennifer Gray Thompson, a Springs resident who’s on high graffiti alert at all times. “If you own a building, you need to paint it out in 24-hours or it will metastasize over the whole area,” Thompson said. “The quicker it’s removed, the quicker it dies down.”

Thompson carries primer and other abatement tools in the trunk of her car, ready, willing and able to take things in hand. “If it’s a painted surface, you can just cover it. On anything metal you can remove it with graffiti remover.” A longtime and outspoken resident of the Springs, she finds graffiti personally offensive. “Graffiti irritates me. It is other people’s property. It’s so intensely rude.”

Up until July 2018, the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office handled graffiti abatement in the Springs. There was a dedicated telephone number citizens could use to report sightings. When a call came in, an employee went out, armed with paint-stripping products or a bucket of camouflaging paint.

“The graffiti abatement program was disbanded in the wake of a budget crunch,” Sonoma County Sheriff’s spokesperson Spencer Crum told the Index-Tribune. “There is nobody in the county that we are aware of doing free graffiti abatement. It will take a community group to form a project.”

Thompson’s one-woman task force notwithstanding, Acker is determined to get the ball rolling. He has taken pictures of vandalized properties and posted the images to the Springs Community Group Facebook page, and members of the group have pressed business owners to take corrective action. “The fact is that it’s the property owner’s responsibility to take care of graffiti,” Acker said.

But that responsibility is more moral than legal, strictly speaking.

According to Maggie Fleming of Permit Sonoma, county code requiring graffiti clean-up applies only to “small alcoholic beverage retail establishments,” requiring them to make repairs within 72 hours.

“Other than that, there is no code related to graffiti,” Fleming said.

There are, however, laws against vandalism. Most taggers face misdemeanor charges when caught, but those who inflict more than $450 in damage are charged with a felony.

With deputies no longer available to help paint over graffiti, the Springs community must cope on its own. One consolation is La Luz Center, where free paint-removal products can be had for any resident who asks. “That’s what we’re here for,” said La Luz client services coordinator Patricia Galindo.

In the absence of any obvious final solution to graffiti vandalism, constant vigilance is second best. As disaffected young men with heavy backpacks plan their sorties, Acker, for one, is prepared to defend. “I care about my neighborhood. A lot of people do.”

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