By Dennis Sean O’Brien
ANNANDALE, Va. – Graffiti is more than just vandalism.
It is the newspaper of the streets and can be a valuable tool for law enforcement agencies, said experts at a Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments anti-graffiti conference Wednesday.
Police can read the often-cryptic graffiti to track the relatively benign “hip-hop” crews, which paint murals or scribble initials wherever they can to gain fame, experts said.
They can also use graffiti to monitor gangs, which vandalize to mark turf and brag about crimes, said Sgt. Donald Lyddane of the Metropolitan Police Department’s intelligence section.
“These are not kids in the suburbs taking an art class. These are individuals that will blow your brains out,” said Lyddane, standing before a 30- by 40-foot projected slide of a murdered gang member for emphasis.
Criminal gangs use graffiti to define boundaries, announce territorial expansion, announce threats and boast about murders or other crimes, said gang expert Dave Grabelski, a retired Los Angeles Police detective.
Police can determine gang member identities from nicknames in the graffiti, Grabelski said. The LAPD solved a murder case that way, he said.
“Hip-hop” vandals, responsible for most graffiti, are now overwhelmingly white, suburban and middle-class, according to Vicki Wilson, project manager of the Suffolk County, N.Y., graffiti task force. The median age of these vandals is 25.
The hip-hop culture had begun among the urban poor in the late ’60s and early ’70s, she said, as the dispossessed expressed themselves artistically with whatever means available.
After the New York Times ran a piece on a New York vandal in 1971, graffiti exploded into the suburbs, she said.
Wilson said her interviews with hip-hop graffiti writers found that they do it for street fame, self-expression, rebellion and the rush they get from lawbreaking.
Hip-hop graffiti is not necessarily a solo act. Sometimes there are as many as 100 in vandal crews, she said.
The activities of both types of graffiti vandals devalue properties and invite criminal activity, Wilson said.
Metrobus alone reports spending more than $800,000 a year on graffiti cleanup.
Sgt. Robert Young, head of the five-member Prince George’s County Police unit responsible for monitoring gang activity, said the county does not have a serious problem right now with graffiti or organized criminal gangs.
No national criminal gangs have infiltrated the county, according to a county police department report. His investigators intend to keep it that way, Young said.
He said people should report graffiti to police, so they can photograph it and determine if it is gang-related. If arrested, vandals could be charged with malicious destruction of private property. -30-