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Police Are Drawing a Bead on Graffiti Artists

Times Staff Writer

Earlier this spring, when he was arrested, Joey Rotelli wasn’t sure what was going on until he recognized Officer Nino Navarra of the Citywide Vandals Task Force. The two men were not friends. But they were not strangers, either.

Their acquaintance dated back seven years, to the night when a 17-year-old Rotelli sneaked into the Brooklyn train yard where New York’s graffiti police were stationed and spray-painted the word “Acid” on the side of an antique subway car.

Now Rotelli was 24. He protested, saying he had stopped tagging years ago; his girlfriend was pregnant, and he was trying to go straight. Navarra took note of Rotelli’s neat clothing, and for a minute he felt sorry. Then he pulled out a photograph taken in 2005 near a Brooklyn expressway, where pudgy letters spelled out that word again: Acid.

This is an aggressive period for New York’s graffiti police. Arrests for graffiti are up sharply: 2,585 in 2005, more than double the number from 2004, according to Lt. Jeffrey Schneider of the Citywide Vandals Task Force.

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On April 26, Rotelli became one of those statistics, putting an end to a long game of cat and mouse. Rotelli was on the task force’s “worst of the worst” list, meaning he was considered one of the city’s top 100 offenders. But Navarra was not exultant. There were stretches of time, Navarra said, when he had hoped Rotelli would shake the habit.

“At some point, I think he did try it,” said Navarra, 41, “but then he fell into his old ways.”

Rotelli was a teenager, knotted up with grief and anger, when Navarra first met him. His mother had died the year before, and the household was out of kilter; that year, he recalled in an interview, the family ignored Christmas. Navarra went to the door and spoke to Rotelli’s father, a city sanitation worker. Rotelli tried to scramble out a back window but soon he was sitting down with Navarra. They talked about his friends, about smoking angel dust, about the graffiti world and why he was in it.

Faced with graffiti vandalism and drug charges, Rotelli pleaded guilty in exchange for a one- to three-year sentence. He served a few months. The next thing Navarra knew, he was driving by a lumber warehouse when he noticed that tag again, in vivid orange: Acid. He pulled over. The paint was still sticky.

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“Holy cow,” Navarra recalled saying. “He’s out.”

Navarra has spent 12 years chasing graffiti writers. A couple months ago, he was playing stickball with his son in Staten Island when he caught a whiff of fresh paint. Before he knew it, he was sniffing the tag, scanning the wall around it, stickball forgotten. It’s gotten this weird: He’ll be on the highway, driving behind a truck, and he’ll be able to tell from the graffiti what street the truck is usually parked on.

In 1999, not long after Rotelli got out of prison, the phone rang in Navarra’s office. It was Rotelli, asking for help finding a job. Officer James Bogliole, who worked alongside Navarra, called around to his friends in construction, telling them Rotelli was handy, a hard worker and a good kid. “You almost become family with these people,” said Bogliole, who is now retired from the force. “I’m not after the kid to destroy his life.”

But no one would give Rotelli a job; employers were scared off by his record, Bogliole said. “He was like a bad-luck coin,” he said.

After this, Navarra said, the tag began to proliferate on storefronts and walls around south Brooklyn. Navarra stepped up his surveillance.

Graffiti police used to spend nights at stakeouts, peering through binoculars in the hope of catching a graffiti writer in the act. Once, in the old days, Navarra emptied a garbage can and climbed inside to wait. Hours passed. The only action of the night came when a man wandered over and urinated on him.

These days, they work more like street detectives. A beefed-up 70-officer squad gathers information with digital cameras, pays $500 for tips and matches tags with writers in a database, GraffitiStat. Judges have come to regard task force officers as expert witnesses, so eyewitness testimony is no longer essential to prosecution.

It is hard to say what works as a deterrent to graffiti, since its prevalence is almost impossible to measure. Police have tried a long series of strategies over the last 40 years -- most notably, in 1984, the Clean Car Program, which demanded that new graffiti be removed from subway trains within 72 hours. In response, vandals shifted their tactics to bridges and billboards, and, most recently, back to the windows of subway trains, where acid etches ghostly, indelible signatures.

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Punishing writers presents its own dilemma, said Eugene O’Donnell, who teaches police science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at City University of New York: Even in a city committed to prosecuting “quality of life” crimes, it is risky to treat graffiti writers like felons.

“There’s a cost to us” when vandals destroy property, O’Donnell said. “But there’s also a cost when you destroy somebody’s life in the criminal justice system. The bottom line is there’s just one more marginalized person in society.”

The hunt went on at a low boil. Navarra followed a sanitation truck for three days once, hoping to catch Rotelli tagging during his day job; no luck. After Sept. 11, he was picking through the tunnels beneath the World Trade Center and in the rubble, in the single station still standing, that tag was on the wall: Acid.

It wasn’t until February 2005 that Navarra saw the evidence he needed to arrest Rotelli. On a stretch of retaining wall near the Prospect Expressway were three Acid tags. The wall was blank for a reason: A community group had vowed to paint over new graffiti every day. So Navarra would be able to prove when the tag was painted.

Timing is key to convincing prosecutors to charge a graffiti writer, since the tag must have been painted within a statute of limitations, usually two years. In April, Navarra found that Rotelli was due to appear in court on an unrelated misdemeanor. He arrested Rotelli on the spot for four misdemeanors -- two counts of criminal mischief and two counts of making graffiti.

Rotelli was released from Riker’s Island and is awaiting his next court date. In an interview, he said he gave up graffiti years ago. If someone is writing the word Acid, it’s not him, he said.

“What is a tag? Who created that tag? My name is Joseph Rotelli,” he said. “That’s on my birth certificate.”

As for the past, he recalled it without nostalgia. It was adrenaline that drew him to graffiti, he said, not creative expression. It was a rush, like the drugs.

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“Graffiti makes you into a bum. It gives you a talent, but it don’t help you get a job,” he said.

The arrest couldn’t have come at a worse time, he said; that day, he had trained at a new job, delivering groceries. He looked around the living room. On a curio cabinet there was a framed picture of Pope John Paul II . A bowl of potpourri sat on a table.

“I’m just learning how to live on my own,” he said.

Bogliole sounded sad thinking about the case. “I really felt, you know, what he wanted, he wanted a chance. One chance to do the right thing, and show everybody -- ‘Listen, just let me get on with my life,’ ” he said. “I don’t think he had that.”


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