Wearing bright orange vests, masks and gloves, two five-member teams of young people are tackling one of Berkeley’s ugliest problems: graffiti.
The mission of the city-sponsored crews is to remove and paint over graffiti found on a buildings – from storefronts to fire stations to senior citizen facilities. With an arsenal of paint cans, brushes and chemical sprays, the teams patrol city streets in a white pickup truck with a trailer looking for graffit. Though sometimes the job is mistaken as a sentence, the cleanup is a program that provides local youth with jobs and money.
“Some people think we're criminals,” said Myron Seals, a member of the team and Berkeley High Senior. “That's the only bad part about it. They're like ‘What did you do?’ ”
To clear up any misunderstandings, bright orange jumpsuits that team members used to wear were recently replaced with orange vests, says Edgar Leon, a recent Berkeley High graduate, “so that people won't confuse us for criminals.”
The graffiti abatement program started 13 years ago as part of a city effort to remove graffiti from public property. More recently, the program included private property.
Between 1996 and 1999 the number of taggers placed on probation in the city dropped from 48 to 13. Tougher penalties for tagging, and graffiti education programs are the reasons for the decrease, according to the Youth Services Bureau of the Berkeley Police Department.
While the majority of tagging is attributed to youth, hate crime offenders have accounted for some of the more recent graffiti. This spring, Berkeley’s Hillel, a Jewish student center near UC Berkeley, was a target.
“Graffiti fluctuates with the emotions of the time,” said Rene Cardinaux, director of Public Works. “If there's a particularly political issue, graffiti will increase. Then, after a few months, it dissipates. There are just certain things in society that will always prompt people to go out and buy a spray can. It's not consistent.”
Under the city's recently approved Hate Crime Immediate Prevention Plan, additional efforts will be made to reduce hate graffiti and hate crimes. For one, the city plans to targeted graffiti more quickly.
In addition, meetings are scheduled with city officials and leaders from Berkeley's many different ethnic communities.
“We want to extend stronger lines of communication and make sure that people can get in touch with someone from the city,” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “We hope to have a better response to these crimes.”
Even with their pledges to respond more quickly, officials say that the youthful mischief behind most graffiti could be impossible to eliminate.
One former Berkeley tagger described painting graffiti as one way in which kids seek recognition from peer groups.
“If your tag gets out there you're gonna get your props,” said Mark, who chose not to include his last name. “You get a rush out of it.”
In addition to city cleanup crews, officials say that Berkeley residents can help reduce graffiti. The city recently published a pamphlet that tells residents how to help stop the ugly crime.
Most importantly, say members of the graffiti abatement team, citizens need to report vandalism to police.
“I think they should have more citizen input,” said Marcus Jackson, a supervisor with the abatement team. “Citizens should be aware, when they see people do that stuff write their license number down, write their description down and report it.”
For the members of the abatement team, helping the community is important, and so is having a job.
“I like it, the pay is good. I'm a high school student so it puts money in your pocket,” Seals said while cleaning up a vacant building on Shattuck Avenue. “It's not in an office all day. You get to be outside with people.”
Abatement team members, mostly high school students or recent graduates, work five days a week during the summer and often work on weekends during the school year.
As far as eliminating graffiti, though, members of the team are realistic. None of them think that tagging will disappear overnight.
“It's everyday... You see it on the side of freeways on buildings, wherever they can get,” said David Robinson, the second supervisor of the abatement team.