published Sunday, April 8th, 2012

Chattanooga takes aim at graffiti


by Cliff Hightower
Hilary Hairston and son Marcos, 6, walk down East Fifth Street toward Market Street past the graffiti-tagged Johnson Group building Friday. Chattanooga officials are working on a program that would fight the spread of graffiti on private property.
Hilary Hairston and son Marcos, 6, walk down East Fifth Street toward Market Street past the graffiti-tagged Johnson Group building Friday. Chattanooga officials are working on a program that would fight the spread of graffiti on private property.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

Sign after sign appeared on the walls of The Johnson Group building on Market Street last weekend.

Gang graffiti was spray-painted in black on the white walls.

"Once they start tagging your building, they continue it and it takes hours to get off," said Sandy Allison, owner of the building. "We've been hit a few times. Never like that, though."

Some police officers on the street say they are seeing an increase in the amount of graffiti on buildings in Chattanooga.

The city now plans on using volunteers to address it. And the new program would be able to help owners like Allison.

The City Council last week agreed to allow releases for city employees or volunteers to go on private property whose owners agree to let them paint over graffiti.

Councilman Peter Murphy, who is leading the effort, said there should be a rollout of the program within the next two to three weeks.

The city already runs a summer youth program that targets graffiti. But this program will supplement the youth program, he said. It will run 365 days a year and anyone with complaints about graffiti can call the city's information line at 3-1-1 and register a complaint, he said.

Once the complaint is registered, the district's councilman or councilwoman will organize volunteers to paint over the graffiti, he said.

"This is to cover us when we're not running the summer program," he said. "It's over and beyond that."

The program started when Lt. Brian Cotter, the commander for the Chattanooga Police Department's Echo Team, saw more and more graffiti popping up in his sector around East Chattanooga. He began recording the number of times he saw the gang signs, he said.

"I have close to 40 different locations we need to clean up," he said.

He said he did not have any numbers from last year to compare, but said there was definitely "more popping up."

Cotter said he thought the program would be good because it lets people take ownership of their own community. He said he didn't know if it would be successful.

"It's worth a try whether it works or not," he said. "If you keep letting it get worse, it will."

Boyd Patterson, director of the city's Gang Task Force, said it is important to get out and take care of graffiti as soon as possible. He said it dogs the collective psychology of a community.

"Gang graffiti is extremely harmful," he said. "The long-er it stays up, it tells residents, 'This really is a gang neighborhood,'" he said.

Gangs use the graffiti to communicate, mark territory and intimidate, he said.

The new program will cover any place on private buildings that gets tagged -- homes, businesses or industries, Murphy said.

He said he knows gangs may come and tag over where the volunteers have painted. But he said the crews will just keep painting over the graffiti.

"We will win this battle," he said.

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