There’s a new kind of graffiti

By Mark Murrmann
Friday September 20, 2002

The letters KRUDT are etched in scratched, block letters on one of the small windows at Cody’s Books on Telegraph Avenue. The mark, likely the sign of a criminal street tagger, is just one of 17 defaced glass panes at the bookstore. 

“It’s a really big problem,” said shop owner Andy Ross who recently spent $300 to replace plate glass that had been tagged. “It seems to be general nihilism. Destruction for destruction’s sake.” 

Glass etching is the latest art of street tagging, and the crime is costing Berkeley merchants thousands of dollars a year. 

Earlier this month, the Berkeley City Council decided to target the foremost tagging tools – acid and etching creams. While many taggers still use keys or other sharp objects, more advanced chemicals have become more popular among street taggers. 

Council passed a resolution supporting state legislation that aims to regulate the sale of acid and etching creams to minors. The pending legislation would increase penalties for those caught using the substances for graffiti. The law would require businesses that sell etching creams and acids to store the products behind the counter or under lock-and-key. 

If state legislators fail to enact the proposed legislation, expected to be discussed this year, City Council will ask the city manager to draft a municipal law addressing this problem. 

In 1988, the California Legislature passed a law prohibiting people younger than 18 to purchase more than six ounces of spray paint, which led taggers and graffiti artists to change their tactics. The law is part of what the state calls its street terrorism enforcement and prevention. Tags written in shoe polish or marker, on stickers – and now acid – have become increasingly common. 

The Telegraph area has been hardest hit, merchants say. Ross counted 700 windows that have been hit by vandals. 

“Everyone agrees it’s a problem,” he said. “But the city doesn’t have a plan in effect to crackdown. They need one. As long as city thinks it’s not that important of an issue, people will keep doing it.” 

Mayor Shirley Dean believes the proposed state law would abate graffiti in Berkeley.  

In addition, Mayor Dean is advocating for a zero tolerance stance on graffiti. The more times a person is caught defacing property, the more stiff the penalty, she said. 

The penalties in the proposed state law include mandatory community service, parent financial responsibility, loss of driving privileges and possible jail time. 

“Obviously it’s not any kind of long term fix to the problem” said Councilmember Kriss Worthington. “The real solution involves positive solution for the kids. But it’s always hard to get people in agreement over recreation and educational programs.” 

To combat the vandalism in the short term, some businesses are replacing streetfront windows with roll-down metal coverings to prevent window damage. But according to a staff report from Dean’s office, the roll-down facades create a “broken window effect,” in which an atmosphere of blight and neglect further encourages “acts of destruction and anti-social behavior.” 

Ross agrees. 

“Roll down gates are not the most attractive thing for a business district. They make it look like a war zone. The solution is almost worse than crime. The real solution is to catch the people doing it,” he said.