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Uncover the hidden messages in graffiti

When the crime is the evidence, a web-based tool can help you investigate even after tagging or gang graffiti is removed or painted over


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Sponsored by GraffitiTracker

By Laura Neitzel for Police1 BrandFocus

British graffiti artist and prankster Banksy shocked the art world when his “Girl with Balloon” self-destructed moments after a patron bought it for $1.4 million at a Sotheby’s auction. What a wanton act of destruction of something so valuable, some decried.

The irony was not lost on Timothy Kephart, the founder of GraffitiTracker, a web-based solution that helps identify, track, prosecute and seek restitution from graffiti vandals. Cleanup of graffiti-based vandalism costs in excess of $12 billion annually in the U.S., according to a 2015 study by the paint company Valspar.

Graffiti as a form of self-expression has been around since the invention of writing. But while some graffiti artists have risen to prominence in the art world, one needs only answer a single question to distinguish “graffiti art” from “graffiti vandalism” – did the person creating the work have permission from the property owner? Absent permission, graffiti is a crime.

A guide on graffiti published by the DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services explains that “rather than being a senseless destruction of property, graffiti fulfills certain psychological needs, including providing excitement and action, a sense of control and an element of risk.” These motivations range from boredom, self-expression, prestige and fame to defiance of authority, hostility, anger and intimidation.

Fortunately for law enforcement, the psychological motivations that drive a graffiti vandal to commit the crime also impel them to leave a trail of clues to their identity, location and affiliations. Understanding the different motivations of each type of graffiti is critical to understanding how to combat it.

While graffiti artists like Banksy make headlines, graffiti as artistic expression represents only a tiny percentage of graffiti worldwide. The two most prevalent categories of graffiti vandalism are gang graffiti and tagging graffiti.

There are two very different motivations behind the two, says Kephart, and each motivation can be used to go investigate and reduce the problem.

Gang Graffiti

The motivation behind the gang graffiti is fear and intimidation, he adds.

“They’re trying to put as much fear and intimidation to the community, to law enforcement and to other rival gangs,” he said.

Recognizable by its block letters and general lack of artistic flourish, gang graffiti exists primarily as a communication tool. Gang graffiti can mark the boundaries of the gang’s claimed jurisdiction or “turf,” be used to taunt or threaten other gangs or individuals, boast of achievements and send coded business communications, such as the time and place of drug transactions.

Roll call graffiti is a listing of the monikers of two or more members of the same gang, along with the gang name or symbol. Paying attention to the monikers that appear together gives law enforcement clues about the identities of gang members and their cliques.

“You get an idea of which gang members are friends that hang out and spend time with one another,” said Kephart. “So, if one of them gets involved in a shooting and there was another person with them, it might help narrow down the list of suspects because these two have put their graffiti up 10 or 15 times over the last month.”

Monikers can also indicate to police when there is an escalation of violence. An X crossing out a moniker means that gang member is targeted for murder or an attack. Wings on a moniker are a tribute to a slain gang member and may be a clue to law enforcement that rival gangs will be seeking revenge.

Tagging Graffiti

Tagging graffiti represents about 80 percent of all graffiti worldwide. The motivation behind tagging graffiti – often more stylized and colorful – is for fame and notoriety. The more difficult the location of the tag, the more notoriety for the tagger.

“Some kid – let’s say your average 13, 14-year-old kid that does this, he adopts a nickname,” said Kephart. “Say it’s Lungs. He’s going to go and write Lungs everywhere. He’s going to be known by it. His friends are going to call him Lungs. His social media accounts are going to reference the name Lungs. That’s become his new identity, so he’s going to put that in as many locations as possible and brag about it.”

Because recognition is important, the tagger tends to express the same motif – the graffiti’s style and content are replicated over and over again, becoming the tagger’s unique signature. As the tagger builds his portfolio, law enforcement gains more evidence.

The importance of restitution

Graffiti vandalism is a unique crime in that the very motivations for self-expression, notoriety and fame that lead graffiti artists and vandals to create graffiti are also weaknesses that can be exploited by law enforcement to identify, apprehend and bring them to justice. In essence, it’s the only crime where the evidence is the crime and the crime is the evidence.

Depriving gang members and taggers of the visibility of their graffiti – and thus their notoriety – has been shown to be effective in reducing graffiti incidents. That’s why most communities follow a policy of painting over or removing graffiti as soon as possible after the incident is reported.

Unfortunately, in their haste to remove the graffiti, many communities are inadvertently destroying evidence that can help law enforcement build a case.

With GraffitiTracker, police can within moments easily record photographic evidence of the graffiti, noting its location and other details that can provide crucial information about the tagger’s identity and tie them to other graffiti incidents. The information then goes into GraffitiTracker’s web-based system, where it is analyzed for hidden messages that might tip off police to an escalation of gang violence, for instance.

GraffitiTracker also records evidence that allows law enforcement to track activity, trace it to a specific tagger and build a case for prosecution that can result in arrest and restitution. Not only does this benefit the community by reimbursing some of the costs of graffiti abatement, the intervention can keep a young graffiti vandal from a life of crime.

“What better way to identify them than such a low-level crime where you can get the restitution back and impact the child at a young age to hopefully steer them on the right path,” said Kephart, who has personally steered several young vandals toward a more productive future. “The kid also stops putting the graffiti up that can be used to prosecute him and gain restitution or, even better, prevent him from joining a gang or furthering a criminal career. It’s a win-win in every single way.”