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City Struggles to Tag Elusive Graffiti Vandals 

Local Matters

BURLINGTON -- Ben Pacy is fed up with Burlington's graffiti problem. The superintendent of park operations for the Parks & Recreation Department isn't sure how much time and money his staff spends cleaning up the stuff, but it's a lot.

"Almost seven days a week we're abating graffiti," Pacy says. "It ranges from a few Magic Markers on signs to all four sides of a stone building."

Almost once a week, Pacy notes, he sends a crew to paint over fresh graffiti on the bridge abutment on the Beltline -- though, technically, maintenance of the highway isn't his department's responsibility. In one summer, the tennis hitting wall in Callahan Park had to be repainted 17 times because graffiti vandals -- don't even think of calling them "artists" in Pacy's presence -- kept tagging it.

"I don't differentiate between this and smashing light fixtures," he says. "I think that as a community, there needs to be zero tolerance for this. People need to put leashes on their kids when they go into the hardware store, and the stores need to be more vigilant about not selling spray paint to people that are questionable in use."

Some graffiti are relatively easy to get rid of, such as markers on metal signs, Pacy explains. Much more difficult and expensive to remove is spray paint on porous materials such as brick or stone, which requires sandblasting, high-pressure sprayers and/or sophisticated chemical applications. But those techniques can also cause permanent damage to historic structures and can make those materials more permeable to the elements. Stone sealants can be applied to resist graffiti, but those, too, are costly.

Nevertheless, Pacy says his department intends to remain vigilant about addressing the problem as soon as it occurs. As Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book The Tipping Point, graffiti that are left unaddressed can trigger a "social epidemic" of other, more serious crimes.

The Burlington Police Department doesn't compile statistics on the incidence of graffiti in the city -- currently, its computer database lumps tagging in with other forms of vandalism. However, BPD's Mike Schirling says the problem tends to ebb and flow; not surprisingly, it's more common during the summer months when kids aren't in school.

There's no indication yet that the uptick in graffiti around town is gang-related, Schirling adds. Likewise, a recent report of a small swastika painted on the back of the brick pumping station on Pine Street appears to have been an isolated incident.

"This is more juvenile bravado," Schirling suggests. "It's not like big cities where gangs are marking territory with tags. Here, it's kids trying to emulate what gangs do in big cities."

Schirling also points out that it's not just a Burlington problem -- towns throughout Chittenden County have struggled to stay on top of the tagging. Recently, the New North End was hit by a person or group who scrawled the word "cretins" on streets, road signs and parked cars. There have been a few arrests this summer for graffiti, though none related to those incidents.

Burlington's Community Justice Center has a volunteer graffiti-removal team that was out last week cleaning up some fresh markings. In addition, the city maintains a database of graffiti tags to document where the problem is occurring, and to help identify perpetrators. The city also has an "adopt-a-block" program, in which community members can get a free graffiti-removal kit and organize regular cleanups. The kits cost the city about $30 to $40 apiece.

Pacy would prefer to see more deterrence in the form of stiffer penalties for those who get caught red-handed. "It's my opinion -- and I could be wrong about this -- the penalty doesn't fit the crime," he says. "It's not just the cost of the paint and the chemicals. It's the time we could be spending doing something else."

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About The Author

Ken Picard

Ken Picard

Bio:
Ken Picard has been a Seven Days staff writer since 2002. He has won numerous awards for his work, including the Vermont Press Association's 2005 Mavis Doyle award, a general excellence prize for reporters.

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