The flood channel near Interstate 10 has been scarred by hundreds of graffiti tags and, like a wound that never heals, treated countless times with drab paint. Beneath the layers of beige and gray are jagged markings that dominate San Bernardino Police Sgt. Dwight Waldo’s world.
He has tracked them for two decades — chasing taggers through back alleys, recovering hundreds of weapons from their hangouts and memorizing, then forgetting, more than 5,000 tags. What many in law enforcement once viewed as petty vandalism, mostly the work of teens with spray cans, early on became something more to Waldo.
The graffiti on those walls promoted gangs, fostered serious crime and poisoned residents’ sense of well-being.
In his quest for understanding, Waldo — who, friends say, doesn’t swear, drink or walk against traffic lights — became a nationally recognized expert on the swaggering urban culture of wall-writing. He wrote the manual, self-publishing “Taggers and the Graffiti Culture,” a how-to for law enforcement.
“He’s been kind of the godfather of it all,” said Sgt. Chris Meadows of the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department’s anti-graffiti squad.
Now 54, Waldo said he plans to retire this year, although he knows he will never be completely free of his life’s work. After years of chasing taggers across San Bernardino, he knows a thousand names from the walls.
But he will never say them aloud.
“It’s what they want: fame and recognition,” Waldo said.
He won’t give it to them.
Waldo grew up in the village of Bath, N.Y. , about 100 miles southeast of Buffalo. After a stint in the military that brought him to Norton Air Force Base in San Bernardino, he joined the Police Department in 1984 and seven years later was attached to its gang unit.
One of his first assignments was to investigate some scrawls that had gone up on walls near a high school. After the arrest of five young suspects was reported in a local newspaper, dozens of people called to thank the police for their work. Not long after that, Waldo said, a 12-year-old boy was killed in his own frontyard by a bullet meant for his brother. Authorities determined that the older youth had been targeted by a gang for dropping out of its tagging crew.
Those incidents crystallized for Waldo the pernicious effects of graffiti on the community.
He threw himself into investigating taggers, spending hours at night poring over photos of their unique signatures. He concluded that graffiti fell into five distinct categories, reflecting a desire to communicate beliefs, express hatred, mark territory, seek personal fame or display artistic talent.
He cataloged hundreds of names and monikers in a bulging three-ring binder. That got unwieldy, so in 1992 he bought a computer and entered all the information on a spreadsheet.
He devised a way to help decipher the more mystifying tags: One officer would attempt to “read” the graffiti out loud as another, listening with eyes shut, would verbalize whatever came to mind.
“When the mind is not engaged in observing letters and is only hearing … sounds, it becomes clear what the actual name is,” Waldo explained.
He is intense by nature: When he decided to take up music a few years ago, he learned how to play the violin, piano, pedal-steel guitar, mandolin, dulcimer, acoustic guitar and bagpipes. Similarly, chasing taggers became an obsession.
The more he learned, he said, the more he seemed to be fighting a losing battle.
When Waldo became a cop, Southern California police departments were awash in gang crime and homicides and paid little attention to tagging. San Bernardino, the sergeant said, formed and dissolved its anti-tagging unit more than once.
Over the years, Waldo watched as taggers moved from using simple spray cans to fire extinguishers filled with paint. Once-ragged crews began using rock-climbing gear to scale old warehouses and learning to spray-paint while hanging upside down to tag freeway overpasses.
Then, in 2007, Waldo got a call from Jackie Lacey, chief deputy prosecutor in the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. Tagging-related crimes — burglaries, shootings and homicides — were on the rise, and Lacey wanted to increase graffiti prosecutions. But the office knew little about graffiti culture.
Waldo showed up with armloads of material he’d compiled.
With Lacey’s help, he put together “Taggers and the Graffiti Culture,” a manual that looks as underground as the world it describes: a sheaf of 110 printed pages bound in black tape.
To guard its secrets, Waldo ripped the back pages out before showing the manual to a reporter. The part he was willing to share outlined how to write search warrants for taggers’ houses and listed telltale graffiti tools: shoe-polish bottles, acid (for etching in glass) and notebooks in which each tagger practices his moniker.
His pamphlet “set a standardized foundation” for tagging investigations, Meadows said.
One lesson in the manual — that taggers crave attention from their own — proved valuable last year when Waldo and his team set out to find whoever was marking up the flood channel near the I-10 in south San Bernardino. The tagger, they realized, was numbering each piece of graffiti. He included names and small arrows. “At one point he had over 50 [tags] up in this area,” Waldo said.
It turned out the arrows pointed toward the neighborhood where the 18-year-old and his crew lived. Asking questions, the investigators found the tagger’s home. He pleaded guilty to graffiti vandalism and was sentenced to probation.
Waldo is unromantic about the taggers’ art and advises law enforcement officers to keep it simple. “The difference between art and vandalism,” he says in the manual, “is permission.”
Although the public and some in law enforcement associate taggers with gangs, Waldo said, that’s an oversimplification.
“Graffiti is all about going to an unusual location and putting up your artwork,” Waldo said while strolling through his own neighborhood, violin and bow in hand. “I do kind of the same thing.... I like the surprise of people finding something that they’re not planning to encounter.”
(His neighbors, he said, have gotten used to hearing “Brown-Haired Maiden” when he walks by.)
Waldo figures that in the five years since his manual has been available to law enforcement, he’s trained more than 1,000 officers at seminars and helped form about 200 anti-graffiti programs around the country.
In Southern California, many cities and counties have boosted budgets for removing graffiti and prosecuting taggers. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department, for example, created a database to map taggers regionally, allowing cases to be pursued across counties.
San Bernardino has made inroads against graffiti since 2009, the year Waldo’s unit was reconstituted and a 24/7 cleanup crew was formed. According to the public works department, the number of square feet covered with scrawls dropped from 4 million to 2 million last year. Now, most tags stay up for only a matter of hours before they’re removed.
In another sign of how things have changed, Waldo said, he was cleaning some tags off a fence a few months ago when two young, heavily tattooed men whom he didn’t recognize approached.
The possibility that they were gang members intent on keeping their graffiti intact led the sergeant, who was dressed in street clothes, to reach for his gun.
When the pair saw that he was removing the graffiti, they reached out to shake his hand.