The elaborate balloon letters, spray-painted pink on a brick wall, are almost legible but still meaningless to most of the thousands of people who walk through Monument Square every day.

But to a small cadre of people, the tag boldly says that the author was there and left his or her mark on a high-profile location.

“They want exactly what it looks like. They want their name out there,” said Trish McAllister, Portland’s neighborhood prosecutor, who oversees graffiti cleanup and pushes for restitution when those responsible are caught by police. “Their best wish is for it to remain there for an extended period. That’s why the best way to defeat it is to remove it as quickly as possible.”

Problems with graffiti in Portland and South Portland, and the resulting crackdowns, have waxed and waned over the years. This winter, the problem appears magnified. Signs, mailboxes, walls and other property in downtown Portland have been hit, and someone spray-painted “Bro” on each panel of the 3,550-foot-long sound wall along Interstate 295 in South Portland. The same tag has appeared in several spots in Portland.

The appearance of the tags in South Portland in mid-December prompted an anonymous donor to offer $5,000 for a reward fund to bring in tips to identify people who deface public property. The announcement of the reward fund Wednesday has already generated some leads, said South Portland police Lt. Frank Clark, although no arrests have been made.

South Portland Police Chief Edward Googins said he knows that announcing the reward draws even more attention to the person or people who tagged the wall, but it’s a necessary price to get the word out.

Some Portland officials and business owners say they have seen graffiti, and complaints about it, surge this winter.

“I’ve seen an explosion during the winter months, a time when it can’t be cleaned off, almost like they know it can’t be cleaned off so they’re tagging more,” said Doug Fuss, owner of Bull Feeney’s tavern in Portland’s Old Port and a member of the board of Portland’s Downtown District.

Some cleaning chemicals don’t work in extreme cold, and high-pressure water cleaning creates ice problems. It will likely be spring before the sound wall and many other surfaces are cleaned.

Fuss said that’s not a good image for Greater Portland.

“Graffiti creates the perception of a place being unsafe,” he said. “I like to equate it to running an establishment like mine. If you don’t clear glasses and keep the place orderly, things will get out of control. I think the same thing is true of cities. Cities have to stay tidy.”

UNDERSTANDING THE MOTIVATION

Graffiti ranges from small scribbles on street signs to large, complex designs, but what defines it is someone painting on another’s property without permission.

Decorative murals, like those on the back side of the Asylum nightclub at Free and Center streets, have the owners’ blessing. But the vast majority of the scribbles and doodles on walls, doors, signs and bridge abutments are vandalism, costing the government and business owners thousands of dollars each year.

Graffiti is the most common type of property vandalism, according to the website of the anti-graffiti nonprofit organization America the Beautiful.

City officials try to understand the motivation for graffiti even as they work to eradicate it. Most taggers are in their late teens to mid-20s, McAllister said.

“They’re part of a culture … with a hierarchy that starts with those who think it’s art, and it goes down to a beginner tagger,” she said, based on conversations with people who have painted in the past.

Often, they don’t think of it as criminal, and consider the sides of buildings and public property part of the public domain – though they know enough not to do it in broad daylight.

“It was interesting how hard it was to get them to understand this is vandalism. This is a crime,” McAllister said.

Taggers don’t do it as an expression of class resentment, intending to be destructive, McAllister said. “It was more of an indifference or a real ignorance of how the person felt whose building had been tagged,” she said.

Officials don’t have a good sense of how many people are responsible for the recent graffiti.

Several years ago, Portland assigned a police officer to keep track of graffiti, coordinating intelligence and maintaining a database of pictures that was expanded each time a new tag showed up. Much of that responsibility has since shifted to McAllister, who has emphasized quick cleanup as the most effective response.

APPARENTLY NOT GANG-RELATED

South Portland police arrested a teenager last month who was tagging public property, and an officer saw at least two people near the I-295 sound wall on the night the graffiti was painted on it.

“A lot of these guys have their own unique emblem or logo that they want to be known by. That’s why they tag,” said Clark, the lieutenant. “One could make the assumption every single tag belongs to a separate person, but who knows?”

McAllister estimates there are 10 to 15 habitual taggers in Portland and another group that does it less frequently.

“One thing that’s been unusual (this year) is this cold weather spate,” she said. “Usually we see an increase when warm weather comes. … During this cold weather … it’s a little unusual.”

McAllister said one good thing about graffiti in Greater Portland is that none of it appears to be gang-related, as it is in some other cities. “A lot of people are worried that’s what it is, but it’s not, at least not from what we’ve determined so far,” she said.

Cities have tried creating space where people can spray and draw their tags and designs legally. Portland has done it with a wall along the East End Trail, near the entrance to Back Cove.

McAllister said it doesn’t help.

“My research has indicated that hurts a community more than it helps,” she said. “It draws in onlookers and wannabes … that will invariably tag areas around it.”

McAllister said cleaning up graffiti costs the city “tens of thousands of dollars” each year. She said prosecutors and judges are now treating the crime seriously and sending some offenders to jail.

In 2012, the city prosecuted Joseph Aceto, 19, who was caught defacing a street sign. He pleaded guilty last summer and was ordered to pay more than $3,000 in restitution and fines.

David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

dhench@pressherald.com