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Uneasy Writers

[whitespace] Gilroy--On a recent graffiti spree, a teenager wrote "I love you Gilroy, but I have to go," and few other less poetic lines on the walls of Brownell Junior High school. Though the copy could have been written by the Chamber of Commerce, the delivery landed the young offender in the clink.

City council member Lisabeth Gifford says the city will pursue what it estimates as $20,000 in damages from the incident. In addition, the young tagger will receive a bill for police and court costs.

Police and politicians have decreed that in Gilroy, teens with cans of spray paint and magic markers stuffed into their oversized pants represent Public Enemy Number One. "Tagging" teens have risen to the top of the official priority list for Gilroy's police department. Neighbors turn them in, cops chase them down, and when it is all over, the bill collector comes knocking to reimburse the city for its trouble.

Since January, Gilroy's city council has scrambled to get tough on the graffiti writers, demanding that police stake out hot spots, and hiring private security guards to patrol downtown. Bills for police and court time are now sent to convicted taggers, and the city is more aggressive about pursuing damages to public property.

Since January, 45 grafittists have been arrested. "We have been having brainstorming sessions to figure out what we should do short of cutting their hands off," says Gifford, a proponent of the city's get-tough policies.

Bills ranging from $300 to $1,500 have been sent to many of the 45 taggers arrested this year. If the bills are not paid, the city may pursue liens on property owned by the kids' parents. Gifford says the council has also discussed the possibility of garnisheeing aid checks if a convicted teen's family receives public assistance.

The council has considered the shame approach, threatening to publish the names of convicted taggers, but ran into a little snag: California state law keeps the identities of juvenile criminals under wraps. Though thwarted, in part, Gifford says the city still plans to publish the names of the paint-prone teens over 18. Convicted teens also spend Saturday afternoons with a Gilroy police officer cleaning up after fellow taggers.

Guadeloupe Arellano, a council member, says graffiti-tagging seems to have decreased since the crackdown. But she questions what has caused the decline. "There was no middle ground," she says. "We went from little enforcement to super enforcement."

"We have dwelled on the negative long enough," Arellano says. "We need to look at programs to channel that energy." Teens are bored and they need more to do, she says. She feels that encouraging taggers to do legal art on canvass rather than stucco store fronts would go a long way.

But money is heading elsewhere. The city council already allocated $67,000 for a civic graffiti van. The city's tan and grey institutional cover-up paints are proving too drab. This new van promises to be a paint palace on wheels. "They'll be able to mix paint to match right in the wagon," Gifford says.

While officials fear that some percentage of the graffiti is gang-related, this effort is not specifically aimed to curb gang activity.

Besides offending aesthetic sensibility, officials fear the scrawled initials will drive away business and investment. Bill Lindsteadt, director of the Gilroy Economic Development Corporation, says he suspects graffiti may have been the reason for at least one business that got away. But he adds that no one has yet told him that graffiti was the reason they did not set up shop in Gilroy.

"I wonder," Lindsteadt muses, "if I put my initials up on the wall, how long they would take to arrest me."
Jim Rendon

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Web extra to the August 13-19, 1998 issue of Metro.

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