Crackdown on graffiti starts with businesses

COSTA MESA — Costa Mesa budgeted $201,000 for graffiti abatement this fiscal year ending in June. Between January and December of last year, city crews had to clean up more than 52,000 square feet of vandalism.

The numbers don't lie, police say. If you don't keep vandalism in check, it takes a toll on the city's appearance and finances.

So starting this year, Costa Mesa police have teamed up with the chamber of commerce to stop vandalism before it starts. In a beefed up graffiti ordinance passed by the City Council in October that went into effect in January, businesses have to limit access to popular tools of the graffiti trade: spray paint, marking pens and etching tools, among others.

"This helps us put the nail in the coffin," Lt. Mark Manley said.

The city also added incentives for people to report taggers in their area.

Costa Mesa is offering up to $500 for information that leads to the arrest of a vandal, and up to $2,000 for a successful conviction.

Police hope the incentives can continue a trend they saw last year. There were 30% fewer graffiti reports in 2010 compared to 2009, police records show.

The overwhelming majority of public graffiti in Costa Mesa is created by tagging crews, not gang members. A tagging crew can be as small as a couple of kids with their own trademark graffiti style.

There are 703 identified taggers in Costa Mesa, making up 188 tagging crews. Of those, only seven are affiliated with gangs, police said. Spray paint is the most common tool for taggers, making up 50% of all public graffiti. Thirty percent of last year's public graffiti was created by marking pens and the remainder was created by etching tools, stickers and other instruments, city officials said.

According to the city ordinance, spray paint cans are required to be locked up so only store employees can take them off the shelves and only people 18 or older can buy them. Etching tools — anything with a sharp edge that can carve, according to police — have to be monitored around the clock while the store is open. Security cameras can cover that requirement, said Police Officer Jason Chamness.

Police point to Ganahl Lumber on Bristol Street as a shining example of how to limit access to products without hurting the bottom line.

"It's not a big deal, there's no one around that wants graffiti," said Brad Satterfield, general manager of Ganahl Lumber. "Customers understand why we're doing it and what we do."

To taggers, Ganahl Lumber is a virtual Fort Knox. Not only is spray paint locked up, so are construction marking pens and etching tools like tile cutters.

"You start with the gold standard, then you move on," Chamness said. "If they can do it, it can be done."

Chamber of Commerce President Ed Fawcett acknowledged that many businesses are slow to adopt the changes, but with the police department's help and more education, change will come.

"They're just dragging their heels," Fawcett said. "They'll get the point eventually."

Businesses could face fines for not following the ordinance.

By The Numbers

Types of graffiti and the number of incidents from January to December of 2010.

Tagger: 3,733 (85%)

Gang: 621 (14%)

Hate: 7 (.5%)

Communicative: 6 (.5%)

Art: 0

Total incidents: 4,367

Total damage: 52,126 square feet

Average tag size: 12 square feet

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