While taking a ride through the South Side or Oakland sections of the city, or walking the streets in Mount Oliver and Brookline, or visiting several other neighborhoods within the Pittsburgh area, you are bound to see the marks of graffiti vandalism.
Although there have been situations in which this type of property damage has occurred in residential areas, it can be most commonly found in neighborhood business districts and on commercial buildings. And this can lead to several growth and economic problems for a community.
“If a person who is interested in a neighborhood is driving through that area and sees graffiti on buildings, they might have second thoughts about moving there or opening a business there,” said District Justice Charlie McLaughlin.
Such concern and reaction to graffiti vandalism sometimes leads to other negative occurrences. District Justice Anna Marie Scharding acknowledges that diminishing property values are a common casualty of graffiti riddled communities. “It makes people wary of their surroundings,” she said.
In addition to the damage caused by the use of graffiti, a newer, arguably more destructive method of property vandalism has appeared in several local areas. An act known as scratchiti, which involves cutting words or pictures into glass, is now becoming more prevalent.
“Scratchiti began in New York and Philadelphia about 10 years ago,” said Eric Milliron, business development specialist for the South Side Local Development Company. “It started showing up in Pittsburgh about five years ago.”
According to Milliron, the usual tool of the trade is an etching gel, originally used by artists that work with metal. After applied, the gel literally burns an impression into the surface it is placed on. In the end, the result is a permanent marking that cannot be removed.
Although graffiti damage is difficult to remove and always tends to leave some slight impression behind, scratchiti vandalism usually ends up being a higher expense for property owners. “This can be very costly because the entire piece of property must be replaced,” added Pittsburgh City Councilman Gene Ricciardi.
In many cases, these types of destruction cast a negative light on the youth of the community. However, these assumptions often tend not to be the case.
According to Zone 3 Crime Prevention Officer Dan McQuillan, offenders are usually white males that range in age from their mid-teens to early 20's. But, he does acknowledge that there have been reports of females involved in such activity in the past.
In the case of McLaughlin, he stated that of all the instances he has known of, “The most serious offenses are committed by adults who take pride in their work.”
Although we can never be certain about why graffiti and scratchiti markings make their way onto buildings and other structures, there have been a number of different opinions offered on the issue. Scharding feels that it stems from a lack of respect and lack of home training.
“We're hoping to get help from parents and to get them to speak to their kids about using graffiti,” added McQuillan.
Some people believe it may involve a sense of empowerment. However, McLaughlin thinks that actually reflects more as an act of cowardice. “It doesn't take brains or guts to strike like a thief in the night,” he said.
According to Ricciardi, Pittsburgh City Council has approved a bill that would make the sale of aerosol paints and etching equipment to minors illegal. In addition, the bill would prohibit possession of these items in public areas.
“We want to send out a clear message that graffiti is a criminal act,” Ricciardi said. The legislation is awaiting Pittsburgh Mayor Tom Murphy's signature to become law.
As of yet, no legislation has been passed regarding the selling of spray paint, and other equipment used in property vandalizing, to minors in Mount Oliver, part of Scharding's jurisdiction.
In Scharding's opinion, for now, it would be best if community retailers decided to police themselves. And in some cases, businesses have already begun doing such by taking the time to keep spray paints behind the store counter.
However, Scharding feels there are even more effective steps that can be taken. “Before selling spray paint to people under 21 or 18, clerks should either get their phone numbers or addresses and check into what the paint is going to be used for,” she said.
In some cities, a variety of alternatives have been suggested in an attempt to curb such activity while still allowing those responsible to express themselves in an artistic, creative fashion.
One example of this is dedicating some locations for murals. In recent year's Pittsburgh neighborhoods have begun to use this approach on a small scale. Some test cases are currently underway including one with the assistance of Carnegie Mellon University's Master's of Fine Arts program.
“Using murals may be a way to help people maintain a sense of ownership in the community,” Milliron said.
Even though there has been some success in the effort to keep graffiti and scratchiti vandalism from occurring, local law enforcement officials can only do so much. In fact, Ricciardi believes that despite all efforts, the level of incidents has probably not decreased in the last two years.
In McQuillan's opinion, this is due in part to a lack of police presence. “Law officers have limited man power and a large area to cover,” McQuillan said.
Another reason why it is becoming more and more difficult to catch those responsible is due to the easy access targets they chose to display their creations. Some examples of these include wooden fences, corner houses and garage doors. And the simple fact that most graffiti and scratchiti incidents occur during the very early hours of the morning, makes it that much more difficult to catch a guilty party.
One method of attempting to curb such behavior before it starts is by getting parents more involved. Ricciardi noted that if a higher level of responsibility was to be placed on parents, it might be a way to help to decrease vandalism.
Another way neighborhoods are dealing with this issue is through area residents taking action. In Mount Oliver, a community block watch has been put in effect and in Brookline, a crime watch meeting is held on a monthly basis. Block watches have also been acting effectively in Knoxville, Carrick and Mount Oliver for a number of years.
Law enforcement officials emphasize that if you or someone you know witness graffiti or scratchiti vandals in the act, call 911 or contact local law enforcement unit immediately.