By Margaret Smyka
Contributing Writer 

Detectives track graffiti throughout the City of Pittsburgh


December 1, 2009

Graffiti was the focus of the Nov. 24 open meeting of the South Side Community Council held at the Brashear Center.

Guest speakers were police detectives Daniel Sullivan and Alphonso Sloan of the Graffiti Task Force; Wendy Urbanic, coordinator of the Mayor's 311 Response Center; and Steve Root of the SSCC's Graffiti Watch.

In their presentation, detectives Sullivan and Sloan discussed their efforts in the investigation of graffiti crimes. The third member of the task force, Detective Frank Rende, was not present.

The officers said graffiti is a crime that attacks quality of life things, and can be costly to homeowners and businesses through clean-up costs and lowered property values. It is especially damaging in that it sends the message that the neighborhood is unsafe or in decline.

Det. Sullivan said that since the task force was formed three years ago, the taggers on the original Top 10 List of city graffiti vandals have been arrested. Those 10 taggers were responsible for about $1.2 million in damages.

Earlier this year, a prolific vandal with a moniker of HERT was arrested. His property damage was estimated at $200,000.

Last year, another prolific tagger, Daniel Montano, was sentenced to two-and-a-half to five years in state prison.

Since the major arrests, graffiti in the South Side is down, said Det. Sullivan.

Taggers operate in groups, or crews, with names like FTC ("full-time crew"), HGH ("home-grown heroes"), and MHA ("most-hated artists").

The task force's goal is to arrest the crew leader. "Often members see what is happening to the leader and back off," he said.

The task force has a 100 percent conviction rate of its roughly 50 arrests.

"No police unit in the city generates as much paperwork as we do," he said.

Unfortunately, such success often serves to entice out-of-town vandals to travel here and try to outsmart police "to increase their street credibility," he said. The taggers post photographs of themselves on-line beside the damaged property, or their so-called "art."

The officers consult computer graffiti sites and chat rooms to find out what the vandals are planning.

Det. Sloane said the juvenile system does not take graffiti "as serious as we do." His main goal in those cases is to recover the money the property owner spends to clean the damaged property.

Juveniles, he said, can be rehabilitated and given guidance. To that end, he works with the non-profit Sprout Fund, a public art program that aims to beautify neighborhoods through the painting of murals by local artists.

A graduate of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, he talks to the vandals about graffiti artists who became famous through legitimate artistic careers.

To a question of what can residents do to help, Det. Sullivan said to "light it up" as it is very rare for vandals to hit well-lit property.

It serves a dual purpose, said Det. Sloane, as the lights cut down on other crimes also.

In her presentation, Ms. Urbanic said if vandals tag your property, call 911 and report the incident as soon as possible.

If the graffiti is on city property, call 311, the city's phone number for government information and non-emergency services, and report it.

"Don't feel you're complaining. We're always happy to hear from you," she said.

Det. Sullivan said to also call the Graffiti Task Force at 412-323-7818 for new graffiti. It also helps to email the date, location, and a photograph.

A great advantage to getting photographs of the damage is that similar styles of writing and drawing elsewhere can be linked to a specific person. The police can then build a strong, solid case against the suspect.

The owner's permission is needed to clean graffiti on private property.

If you want it removed from unpainted brick on property you do not own, you must call 311, said Mr. Root.

To a question of when generally to call 311, Ms. Urbanic said for ongoing problems like trash on a property, abandoned cars, or any other violation. Callers receive a reference num


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