NYPD unit tracks graffiti writers

June 7, 2008 3:00:06 PM PDT
Graffiti artists come to New York City from all over the world to leave their mark on subway cars, buildings and billboards. They will spend hours surveying and then spray-painting hard-to-reach spaces with remarkable precision. The finished product may be impressive, but it's also illegal - and constantly being monitored by a specialized New York Police Department graffiti unit. The unit is sophisticated in its own right, keeping a database of offenders and holding weekly meetings to pore over graffiti crime stats.

Called the Citywide Vandals Task Force, the unit arrested 3,786 suspects last year, up from 2,962 in 2006. They have made several high-profile arrests this year, including one Tuesday when a teen was accused of defacing a mural dedicated to Sept. 11 victims.

The 60 officers in the unit track and record the aliases used when writing graffiti, known as "tags." A searchable database has more than 8,000 entries, allowing the task force to track active writers and cross-reference their tags after an arrest to possibly add charges if a tag is found in more than one location.

Most of the officers can decipher tags that, to the naked eye, seem like a mess of scribbles.

"It's like another language, you just have to take the time to learn it," said Elwood Selover, commanding officer of the task force.

Offenders are rarely caught holding the can of spray paint. Instead, the task force relies on calls to the city's 311 hot line reporting the crime. Officers patrol the city, and work with local precincts and other police departments around the country to make arrests.

Graffiti has its own subculture. Generally, work is done by two groups: "bombers" and "writers." Bombers quickly paint simple messages, mostly their alias, while writers take more time to make more elaborate, colorful work.

In a way, the point is to get caught. Writers choose a tag and rarely change it, even if they are arrested and end up in the NYPD database. They spend hours leaving their mark in the most visible of locations, with subway cars being the ultimate prize.

"For the serious graffiti artists, who want to get out there and make their mark, the holy grail is still the subway train," said Lt. Michael Schaeffer of the task force. "That's kind of where it all started."

Schaeffer says people come from around the world with the intent to tag a train. But most suspects arrested for graffiti in the city are teenage boys, and they come from all economic and ethnic backgrounds.

"It's a mixed bag, honestly," Schaeffer said. "You have kids from good homes and good families doing this stuff and their parents are beside themselves."

Schaeffer said the offense doesn't generally lead to more violent crime, but there are exceptions. The task force recently arrested two teenagers for gang-related graffiti, and through the investigation, uncovered illegal handguns.

The majority of the graffiti around the city is tagging in bursts of color and bubble letters, police said. There are also instances where vandals write gang symbols, swastikas and other hate images, and the penalties can be stiffer should those suspects be arrested and convicted.

But an arrest and conviction may not deter graffiti writers, police said, because tagging after being convicted is considered a badge of honor.

Then again, the vanity tied to the crime can also be helpful to officers - many vandals these days videotape the act, set it to pumping club music, and post it on a MySpace or Facebook page.

"MySpace accounts do these guys in every time. It's incredible," Schaeffer said. "They just love to show it off."

The finished product can be stunning, and many consider graffiti an art. There are countless exhibitions on the subject. It evolved from the heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, where seemingly every subway car was tagged, and writers like Fab 5 Freddy and Futura 2000 were underground heroes. The artist Jean Michel Basquiat famously got his start painting walls and went by the tag "SAMO." A large mural of graffiti from the era found in December was considered a major artistic find.

Others say it's doesn't matter if it's pretty - it's a defacement of property and illegal.

Jonathan Cohen, a former tagger who now runs a warehouse in Queens where it's legal to paint graffiti, said the older he gets, the more he sees both sides.

"I understand that people have businesses and are disgusted with it because it's on their property, but I also know it's an art form," he said.

Cohen thinks the penalties - which can include felonies with steep fines and jail time depending on the amount of damage done - are too steep. "It's nowhere near the same level as robbing someone or killing someone," he said.

The task force was created in 2005 as part of an initiative by Mayor Michael Bloomberg so all graffiti investigations - including subway cars - now fall under one umbrella.

Arrests have risen every year since, but so have complaints, from 4,886 in 2006 to 8,866 last year, according to statistics. The mayor's office deals with the actual cleanup.

Department Chief Ed Young attributes the spike to increased police presence on the crime. "When people are talking about it, they're going to notice it more, and report it more," he said.