Twenty-three-year-old Sean Cantu used a black, chisel-tipped Sharpie to scrawl his tags — GUE and Tin4 — on newspaper vending machines, bus stops, fire hydrants, doors and walls around Santa Fe Place Mall in March 2011. He tagged a total of 23 pieces of property that particular day.
But unlike most taggers, Cantu got caught after security guards at the mall called emergency dispatch to report the vandalism. In the squad car, he told officers he should not be going to jail “because he was just a tagger and not a real criminal,” according to a police report. Tagging, he said, was “just a misdemeanor.”
Taggers prefer to call themselves “writers.” Many others consider them vandals and lawbreakers. And they’ve struck Santa Fe regularly in recent months, including the historic Palace of the Governors on Dec. 9, and Cathedral Park and the east side of the Plaza in late November. “This is the worst year I’ve ever seen,” said Steve Almenzar, the city’s graffiti and trails supervisor.
Although the city has set up locations for graffiti artists to create their art legally, Santa Fe’s graffiti hotline is its first line of defense against taggers — at least for documenting the vandalism and cleaning it up. According to data produced for The New Mexican, the hotline had received 946 reports of graffiti this year as of Nov. 28, compared to 597 in 2011.(Police dispatchers also track graffiti. They received 28 calls about tagging in 2011 and 58 in the first 11 months of 2012.)
The city’s anti-graffiti coordinator, Jennifer Muñoz, said recently that normally, when school starts and the weather gets colder, fewer calls come in to the hotline. But this year, she’s still getting up to 10 reports a day.
When the post of anti-graffiti coordinator was created in 2010, the city hoped to find connections between incidents reported to the hotline, and to help build cases against vandals. City Councilor Carmichael Dominguez, a proponent of the new position, hoped that investigations would result in arrests and citations and discourage what he saw as an urban blight.
“I don’t know if it has quite lived up to what I’d hoped,” Dominguez said. “But I’m not ready to give up on it yet.”
None of the calls to the hotline has yet resulted in the filing of a police report. No citations were issued in 2011 and only one citation has been issued this year. In the past two years, there have been only six arrests.
Muñoz said the low probability of a tagger being cited or arrested is related to lack of manpower within the police department and the improbability of witnessing the crime. “There are only a select few caught in the act,” Muñoz said. “The rest are simply cases of us documenting the damage.”
Muñoz, who worked at the police department for about 7 1/2 years before taking her current position, said that she is only able to answer a small fraction of the calls that come into the anti-graffiti hotline.
Each recorded message, however, is entered into a searchable database and referred to the city’s parks division, which sends out a two-man crew to take photographs and clean up the damage.
Police Chief Ray Rael said that despite his office’s ability to identify graffiti crews or gangs that tag to establish their territory, bringing charges against those people is nearly impossible. “It’s one thing to suspect an individual is doing it, it’s another thing to charge them with it,” Rael said. “They work in pretty tight circles and are never prone to admitting anything.”
Rael explained that, in an effort to be proactive against the taggers, he has assigned more bike patrols to areas that are frequently tagged and has directed officers on the graveyard shift to patrol high crime areas. Rael said most graffiti happens in the early hours of the morning, between 3 and 5 a.m., and he has asked his force to make this crime one of its top priorities during those times.
The trouble is, only eight officers are on duty during the graveyard shift, Rael said.
Muñoz said she has identified at least two “tagging crews” in the city. She says “PDB” and “TYO” appear to be small groups of taggers sharing a moniker. She says groups like this, and even single entities like “Fader,” are tagging walls, walking and bike tunnels, bridges and other property as a way to advertise themselves.
“They are trying to tag where it’s going to stay up longer and their moniker is going to be recognized more often,” Muñoz said.
Part of Muñoz’s job involves seeking restitution in graffiti cases, but she has had only one successful case in the past two years. The mother of a teenager caught tagging a city trash bin by a city bus driver sent a $200 check to the city and the case was resolved. According to Muñoz, however, three restitution cases are pending in the City Attorney’s Office.
Cantu, who caused over $1,000 in damage in his attack on the mall, accepted a plea agreement with the state in 2011. He pleaded no contest to one count of criminal damage to property under $1,000 and was ordered to pay $73 in court fees and serve 72 community service hours with the city’s parks division.
The city of Santa Fe website says that after graffiti is reported to city hall or the graffiti hotline, the city will clean it up in less than 48 hours. That doesn’t actually often happen, according to Almenzar, because of the massive number of reports regularly received. “We can’t make it,” Almenzar said. “Not with our manpower.”
The city also requires private businesses to clean up graffiti in 10 days, or notify the city if they don’t intend to — after which the city will make time to clean the private business.
The city has spent more than $170,000 so far this year cleaning graffiti. The money comes out of the overall budget for parks, trails and watershed. To help with the cleaning, Almenzar has invested in a $15,000 power washer that can wash paint from most surfaces without the harmful scarring of a sand blaster.
The money the city spends on cleanup is only part of the story. Jeff Posa, president of Posa’s on Rodeo Road, estimates that he spends $400 a year on wages and supplies to clean the south-side restaurant of tagging. “They say it’s a victimless crime, but its really hard to try to get that cleaned up,” Posa said.
His building has been tagged on every wall, the units on the building’s roof have been tagged and Posa’s vans have been tagged. He makes it a point to remove any tag as soon as possible.
City Manager Robert Romero said recently that the city usually makes makes a big push to clean up graffiti at the end of the summer, when the incidents normally taper off. However, this year the cleanup crews couldn’t keep up.
“There seems to be an increase in graffiti and we’ve asked the police department to be more proactive in their efforts,” Romero said.
Although Romero said he realizes how difficult it is to catch graffiti artists and prove that they are the culprits, he said things like a proposal pending at the City Council to install 38 cameras around town could help curb the tagging.
Contact Nico Roesler at 986-3089 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nicoroesler.