Graffiti War Threatens to Engulf City

Police officials report that a near-epidemic of graffiti, triggered by competition among rival tagging groups, is threatening to inundate the city.

The surge in graffiti, for the most part, isn't attributed to traditional and territorial street gangs staking out their turf. Rather, it's the result of tagging wars among rival groups competing to see which group can put its nickname or initials on the most walls, freeway signs, billboards and other places, officials said.

"We are getting hit real hard," Detective Mark Hutchinson said. "There are, conservatively speaking, between 500 and 1,000 taggers now active in the city."

"It's just the thing to do," Detective Elaine Barr said. "Guys used to get together and go bowling. Now they go tagging."

There is a start time for tagging competition as well as a stop time, officers said. And there is a premium for putting the group's name or initials where it can be seen by the most people.

Graffiti has been splashed on the top of a three-story building that required the youths to use ropes or climbing equipment, an officer said.

There are three types of tagging battles, police explained.

One version involves playing for cans of spray paint (taggers play for 20 to 30 cans that the losing crew must give to the winning crew). In another, the losing crew must give up its tag name. And there is playing for "join-ins," in which the losing crew must become part of the winning crew.

Leaders of other tagging groups watch the competition and decide who wins.

"The individuals and groups (aspire) to be artists, and it is their creed that the world is their canvas," Lt. Kevin Raney said.

But Raney sees nothing artistic in taggers' efforts.

Taggers are believed to be mainly Anglo and Latino males between 14 and 18 years old who do their work between 2 and 4 a.m. But most ethnic groups are represented.

Lately, two female tagging gangs have surfaced, police said. One, called the Evil Queens, scrawl "EQ" on property. The other group is called Ladies of Royalty, and "LOR" is its autograph.

Taggers use spray paint, markers, ink or etching tools.

Garden Grove investigators have been meeting with neighboring city and school officials to seek a solution. "But we are not sure what the solutions are," Raney said.

Police recently have stepped up their patrols and have made eight arrests since Dec. 20.

Tagging competition has been mostly free of violence, with participants concentrating on victory in the tagging wars, Detective Baden Gardner said. But there are reports that some taggers now are arming to protect themselves against rivals.

A suspect arrested Sunday had an automatic handgun in his possession, Gardner said.

Hutchinson said that officers from the Police Department's youth services division have been able to step up surveillance of the graffiti taggers while schools are closed for Christmas vacation. On regular school days, the detectives are required to spend most of their time on campus, he said.

The hardest hit areas are along freeways and major thoroughfares. But residents say they fear that graffiti is getting ever closer to their homes and neighborhoods.

A resident asked the City Council last week if there isn't more that officials can do.

The woman, who said she didn't want her name used in the newspaper for fear of retaliation, decried the "ugliness" of the graffiti that she said is defacing property and lowering the value of homes.

Because of budget cutbacks, the city has only one employee available to paint over graffiti. The recent outbreak has been so severe that the worker is about three weeks behind on calls, a spokesman said.

The city also provides paint free of charge to residents and volunteers so that they can paint over graffiti.

Police officials said the phenomenon is so recent that they have been unable to calculate a dollar estimate for damages.

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