Apr 30, 2013 12:50 AM by Matthew Schwartz
TUCSON - Mario Figueroa confronts graffiti vandals and gets obscene gestures and cursed at for his trouble. Mr. Figeroa is a 62-year old retiree and life-long Tucson resident who spends much of his time cleaning up graffiti in his Sunnyside neighborhood. Mario travels around town with his paint roller and bucket, trying to catch so-called "taggers" and cleaning up their mess.
Mr. Figueroa says he does it because he's "trying to improve the quality of the neighborhood and get rid of the bad influences.".
He is a busy man.
Graffiti has been a very big problem in Tucson for years. And it's an expensive problem. And now it might be as bad as ever, according to Tucson Police.
In March of this year, police counted 2,238 incidents of graffiti in the city. That's more than 70 a day. It's such a big problem that the police department has four officers assigned full-time to look for "taggers."
The News 4 Tucson Investigators were allowed to ride along with Officer Stephanie Brown last week as she looked for taggers. She says that in two years of doing this patrol, she's never caught one graffiti vandal in the act. But she catches plenty afterwards
Officer Brown told us, "They have go to realize that the damage that they are doing, that they're damaging other people's property that are working hard for what they have."
Brown adds, "What I found from talking to the kids, they do it for attention. They call it 'ups' when they tag something. The more 'ups' that they have the more that they are recognized."
The vandalism is virtually everywhere in Tucson and surrounding area. On businesses, walls, stop signs. Bus stations are hot spots. The graffiti is often code words for the taggers nicknames.
Officer Brown says only about five percent of it is gang-related, and that most taggers are 14 or 15 years old. It is again Tucson city ordinance to sell spray pain to kids under 18. But they have no trouble obtaining it, usually from older friends, their own garage, or in some cases, online.
The city's long-time graffiti problem doesn't just present an eyesore, it's also an expensive problem for taxpayers.
Tucson City Spokesman Michael Graham says, "When you're spending three-quarters of a million dollars to eradicate graffiti, I'd say we have a pretty big problem out there."
Graham says the city pays an outside contractor $60,000 a year just to spray over graffiti.
He told us, "That's money that, from the general fund, that could have been used to improve city parks, or other city infrastructure. instead, that's going for graffiti abatement."
The city pays an outside company to paint over graffiti. The penalty for this type of criminal damage amounts to how much damage is done; over two-thousand dollars is a felony if done by an adult. For juveniles 17 and under, if the damage is more than $250, it becomes a felony.
Don Ijams is an anti-graffiti activist who runs a group called the "Graffiti Action Forum."
Ijams told the News 4 Tucson Investigators, "There are all kinds of blight, like weeds, like junkie yards, like whatever. But graffiti is so obvious.
if we want our city to look good, for all of us, let alone visitors, let alone businesses coming in, then we've got to look at making it look as good as we can.
Police didn't catch any taggers in the act while we were with them...in fact they almost never do. They say almost all of their arrests are made afterwards, through investigations. If you see graffiti and would like to report it, the City of Tucson's website has a form you can complete and police will investigate. The link is: http://cms3.tucsonaz.gov/graffiti/report.
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