Disappearing Act : Graffiti: Caltrans involved in costly--and sometimes deadly--tag match with vandals who deface freeway signs and walls with spray-painted personal messages.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Fighting a Sisyphean problem that reappears almost as quickly as it is painted over, Caltrans is engaged in a costly effort to eradicate graffiti from signs and walls along San Diego-area freeways.

The scrawlings from gang members and "taggers"--non-gang members who spray paint their identifying "tag" or mark on surfaces--can be seen along freeways throughout the county. Caltrans personnel and law enforcement officers say some of the vandalism is by gang members, but most freeway graffiti are traced to taggers.

Officials said graffiti vandals are getting bolder. No longer content with just painting a freeway wall or bridge, taggers keep challenging each other to deface more dangerous and hard-to-get to surfaces.

Even overhead signs commonly are defaced.

"Taggers do it to demonstrate to their peers how fearless they were to place graffiti in places that are difficult to reach," said Lt. Dennis Gibson of the San Diego Police Department. "The more hazardous the area, the more points they score with their own group."

"They're trying to find ways to impress their peer groups and claim bragging rights for areas they deface," added Kyle Nelson, Caltrans spokesman in San Diego. "You got a lot of kids who need to get a clue and find a life."

Who are these taggers?

"They're kids, mostly juveniles, from your neighborhood and mine," said Lt. Joe Garrison of the California Highway Patrol. "They come from all (ethnic) groups. My own personal opinion is that taggers are not necessarily criminals or bad kids. But we would like to redirect their talents in other, more constructive directions."

Removing the graffiti is costly--and occasionally deadly. According to Caltrans, 28 of its employees statewide have been killed since 1972 while removing graffiti from freeways.

In the Caltrans district that includes San Diego, Imperial and southern Riverside counties, graffiti removal costs $20,000 a month, Nelson said.

"There's a lot of expense when it comes to cleaning large overhead signs that are defaced," he said. "Sometimes, we have to replace severely damaged signs."

As expensive as the problem is in the local Caltrans district, the local cost is about one-fifth of the money spent by the Caltrans this year on graffiti eradication in Los Angeles County. A Dec. 10 report by Caltrans in Los Angeles said the district office has spent $1 million in 1991 on graffiti removal.

Russell Snyder, Caltrans spokesman in Los Angeles, estimated that it would cost $2.5 million annually to stay on top of the problem in the Los Angeles area alone.

In San Diego County, most of the graffiti are concentrated along Interstate 5 from Old Town Avenue south through the downtown to the freeway's interchange with California 54 in Chula Vista, officials said. Gibson, who heads the SDPD gang unit, said the heaviest graffiti activity occurs between Old Town Avenue and the I-5 on-ramp to the Coronado Bridge.

Taggers usually strike after dark, and most of the spray-painting occurs on Friday and Saturday nights, Nelson said.

"Friday and Saturday nights seem to be the evenings when most graffiti goes up," he said. "We have teams that go out Saturday and Sunday mornings and paint over the scrawlings. The workers do this as part of their scheduled work week. There is no overtime pay involved."

He added that local Caltrans supervisors initiated a "pro-active" program about two years ago when graffiti mushroomed, seemingly overnight, on freeways.

"We set up teams within the maintenance department whose responsibility is to go out and eradicate graffiti within hours, or sooner if possible, after it appears. The sooner you get to it, the less likely it is that the surface will be defaced again," Nelson said.

According to Snyder, 80% of all the freeway graffiti in California is concentrated in the Caltrans district supervised by its Los Angeles office, which has responsibility for 597 miles of freeway in the Los Angeles area and Ventura County.

Caltrans workers there are perhaps the most experienced in fighting freeway graffiti, and some of their tactics have been adopted by San Diego.

These include stringing razor wire around signs that are frequently defaced and coating poles with axle grease to prevent vandals from climbing.

"We've also tried various coatings which allow us to wash off graffiti. But they have worked with varying success," Nelson said.

But, for the most part, these measures serve as little deterrent.

"Some vandals take these obstacles as a challenge," Nelson said. "Some are rather daring. They use grappling hooks and rope ladders to reach overhead signs. We've received reports of kids standing on other kids' shoulders to get to a sign."

So far these antics have not resulted in any accidents or injuries to vandals or motorists, authorities said. (A 17-year-old boy who was spray-painting insignias along Interstate 405 in Orange County was killed last July when he was struck by a truck while running across the freeway in Seal Beach after spotting a CHP car.)

Two detectives from the San Diego Police Department's gang detail have joined CHP officers and Caltrans crews in a task force formed earlier this year to eradicate graffiti and arrest the perpetrators. Caltrans and local law enforcement officials get many reports of graffiti activity, but the vandals have proved to be elusive.

"Believe me, we've tried to catch one of these rascals in the act, but haven't had any luck yet," Gibson said.

CHP officers have been only slightly more successful.

"Believe it or not, the people we've caught were reported by motorists who called in on their cellular phones," Lt. Garrison said.

Even when vandals are caught in the act, there is little that law enforcement officials can do. Usually, they are cited and released with the promise to appear in court.

"Most of them are juveniles, and it is my understanding that most of them do appear," Garrison said. "They are usually assigned to work with the highway crews that paint over graffiti."

Earlier this month, Caltrans officials in Los Angeles announced a tough new policy that calls for collecting civil damages from the parents of juveniles caught defacing state property.

In addition, the agency will request that judges impose a minimum fine of $1,000 on defendants for every graffiti tag they paint on the freeway.

"We're doing things here in Los Angeles that could also work in other districts," Snyder said. " . . . Parents will get a bill when a minor is involved. We're serious about this."

One of the more unusual programs initiated earlier this year by officials in Los Angeles is "Adopt-a-Wall," which is similar to the agency's successful Adopt-a-Highway program. Under both plans, a community group adopts a length of road and keeps it clean of litter and graffiti.

Groups involved in the adopt-a-wall plan are provided with free paint by Caltrans and pledge to keep their stretch of highway graffiti-free.

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