February 7

Surge of graffiti in winter mars Maine cities, gets police attention

Portland and South Portland officials work to thwart a tagging culture that commits vandalism and calls it art.

By David Hench dhench@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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.

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A pedestrian passes graffiti sprayed on the front of the Others! cafe in Portland’s Monument Square. The graffiti problem appears to have magnified this winter, a time when the weather makes it difficult to wash away the unsightly vandalism.

Amelia Kunhardt/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Graffiti marks the side of a building in Monument Square.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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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.

(Continued on page 2)

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