Police define tagging as "recreational vandalism." Although many taggers collect in social cliques called "crews," they're less concerned about affiliation and geographic areas than gangs are. Crew affiliation is not as permanent as gang membership.

Taggers have their own language. Often after a party, taggers go on "bombing runs," in which they blitz the entire city with their tags in order to be known as "all-city." A "piece" is a really nice mural; a "piercer" does really good pieces, [James Coleman] said. A "toy" is a derogatory term for a beginner. "Suckers" are the residents who "buff" the graffiti (paint over it).

Styles sometimes overlap. Generally, though, tagger signatures are fashioned in wide, feathering bands, Coleman said. He said that bubble letters reflect the second generation of tagging graffiti, and murals are the third generation.
No good estimate exists of the amount of monetary damage done by taggers -- graffiti vandals usually in their teens or pre-teens. Caltrans says it spends $20,000 a month in San Diego employing and equipping full-time crews to clean the graffiti from freeway signs. But tagging is costly in other ways, in declining property values and increased public unease and fear.

Another important barrier to enforcement, according to [Joe Wood], is the California penal code. In order to qualify as a felony, vandalism must result in over $5,000 damage; below that, the crime is a misdemeanor. In the case of misdemeanors, in order for police to make an arrest, the crime must be committed in the presence of the arresting officer. Unfortunately, the fact that the tagger's name is on the wall doesn't prove anything. A freeway sign may contain several names placed there by one tagger. Also, some taggers plagiarize or "bite" other taggers' code names, especially the names of more notorious taggers. So SDPD is considering a number of innovative investigation techniques, among them, handwriting analysis to link tags with individual taggers, and charging several taggers with conspiracy to commit a misdemeanor; the conspiracy itself becomes a felony.

"W e briefly considered greasing the poles, but that was considered too messy," says James Larson, Caltrans community affairs director. (To climb freeway sign poles, some taggers bind their wrists and ankles in duct tape, sticky side outward.) "We've also tried putting up rat guards. You know, like the metal funnels used years ago to keep rats from climbing up the ropes to ships." But taggers used ladders to climb over the rat guards.

The "graffiti belt" -- places where graffiti vandals hit most frequently -- runs roughly along Interstate 5 from Balboa Avenue to the border, along State Route 94 from I-5 to Lemon Grove, and along Interstate 8 from Mission Valley to El Cajon.

The Lemon Grove Avenue sign on State Route 94 was being hit by graffiti artists so much that Caltrans workers encircled the base of the sign with barbed wire.
Sgt. Joe Wood, 38, knows what the hieroglyphics along the freeways mean and he knows about the taggers who make them. "Actually, taggers don't like to be called taggers," says Wood, as he wheels his beat-up Mustang south on Interstate 5. "They like to call themselves `writers.' "

Wood says police used to prefer downplaying the details of tagging, and he is still ambivalent about saying anything that could glorify taggers, but he figures that the more the public knows about tagging, the more it will support political solutions. "Besides," he says, "anything I can tell you, the taggers already know."

(At a Burger King where Wood stops to eat, I look at the mirrored wall behind him and see a small crew insignia scratched into the glass.) Caltrans has begun to wrap razor wire around highway sign poles; in Los Angeles, taggers have circumvented this by using ropes -- so Caltrans is now wrapping poles to prevent roping as well.
Although taggers hit myriad buildings, billboards and road signs, most pass through [Joseph Gaspard] and [Matthew O'Deane]'s jurisdiction because the kids get around by bus.

The transit cops sometimes also work on foot, watching for boys vandalizing bus benches and signs. They have trailed taggers who were painting nearly everything in sight, waiting for them to tag transit property.

An hour of observation doesn't net any arrests for Gaspard and O'Deane. So they head for Park Boulevard, where two other transit cops have caught a boy etching three letters into a bus window.
[Michael Cochran] said the back windows of the buses are so etched with gang symbols, initials and other graffiti that you can't see out of them, adding that even the new buses have been marred with graffiti from the back halfway to the front.
Mayor Susan Golding and representatives of four retail chain stores announced yesterday that the stores will lock up spray paint and other tools of graffiti vandals.

Golding was joined at the event by 8th District Councilman Juan Vargas, who announced a plan for San Diego similar to those in school districts and cities statewide that punish the parents of graffiti vandals along with the culprits themselves.

Kmart, Target, Pep Boys and Home Depot stores have agreed to keep aerosol paint cans, etching tools and marking pens locked up in their stores to prevent shoplifting of the items, Golding said.
Thirty-seven people were arrested this week after San Diego police and sheriff's deputies posed as Hollywood producers in an elaborate, six-month sting operation to catch taggers, the common name for graffiti vandals. Six others are being sought.

Letting their egos take the lead, the taggers unwittingly took the "producers" on a graffiti tour of the county, proudly pointing out their artwork on walls and freeways, police said. The admissions were captured on videotape.

The answers will be the primary evidence used against the taggers, said Deputy District Attorney David Williams. While searching the homes of taggers, investigators even found photo albums showcasing the graffiti, as well as videotapes of the taggers in action.

"They got 14- and 15-year-old kids, and some people who hadn't tagged in two or three years," says Chino, an aerosol artist (yes, galleries throughout the world recognize the technique). He was targeted but resisted the blandishments of Star Productions over a three-day "recruitment" by phone and at Star Productions' "office" on G Street.
"They had row on row of paint cans against the wall, to use in the office there." Chino says he refused to paint in the storefront for the camera. "They offered to take me out in the van." He refused to go.

Imperial Beach businessman Jeff Franz, who supports the aerosol painters -- opposed to taggers -- by giving them his walls and a studio, says the six-month sting actually increased freeway tagging.
Greg] and four of his friends responded to the casting calls, and he soon found himself spraying graffiti under a bridge at the intersection of Interstate 805 and state Route 54 in Chula Vista.

San Diego police Sgt. Joe Wood denied that the sting involved entrapment. Wood said the department received guidance from the District Attorney's Office every step of the way.

Wood agreed that many of the people arrested in the sting have artistic talent, but he said most graffiti vandals start out as taggers when they are younger and cause thousands of dollars worth of damage. In addition, he said all the arrests made involve illegal graffiti.

Tag! Graffiti artists strike at bottom line
San Diego Business Journal, Nov 8, 1993 by Caty Van Housen

They're not painting a pretty picture. Graffiti taggers are running up the price tag of doing business in San Diego.

Millions of dollars are being spent countywide to obliterate the blight caused by cans of paint in the hands of juveniles who want to see their names in lights, or at least on the sides of buildings.

"Graffiti may be low priority when compared with other crimes, but to the small businessman it's very costly, both in clean-up and in the negative perception of being in unsafe areas," said Peter Tereschuck, vice president of operations for the San Diego Trolley.

The trolley's annual budget to clean up and deter graffiti approaches $400,000 a year, according to Tereschuck. Likewise, the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) shells out $20,000 each month to scrub away or paint over graffiti along San Diego County's freeways and roads.

Many local cities spend more than $100,000 a year on the problem. Business owners are spending thousands of dollars on paint, floodlights and security.

Most of the county's graffiti vandalism can be chalked up to about 1,000 teen-agers who thrive on peer recognition for having their name show up on as many -- and as dangerous -- locations as possible. Fewer than 20 percent of all graffiti is done by gang members staking their turf, said Sgt. Joe Wood, head of the gang unit for the San Diego Police Department.

"Tags" usually can be distinguished from gang graffiti by their style and content.

Tags consist of the tagger's name and the initials of the "crew" he or she hangs out with. The most notorious tagging crews in town include RTS, which stands for Running The Show; SKA, or Still Kicking Ass; and AEK, or Always Ending in Kaos. (Chaos is spelled with a "K" in allegiance to a brand of paint, Krylon, favored by many taggers.)

Gang graffiti will usually show the name of the gang along with a roster of members. For example, "VCV," which stands for the "Barrio Chula Vista" gang, can be found throughout Chula Vista with up to 30 names -- including the likes of "Snaggle," "Sleepy" and "Josie" -- listed beneath the graffiti, Wood said.

Grappling with graffiti can be dangerous, as well as expensive, say San Diego city officials. While nobody has been hurt in retaliation for painting over gang graffiti, there have been confrontations when people have tried to interfere with gang members while they were scrawling their names.

The money pouring into this problem is the same everywhere -- vast. But approaches vary for erasing the problem.

Some graffiti experts say the way to stop taggers is to paint over the words as quickly as they appear to deny them the ego satisfaction of seeing their name. Others say painting over quickly only provides a fresh canvas for more.

One thing everyone seems to agree about: Local businesses smeared with paint and markers are suffering heavy financial and emotional costs.

"Businesses are hurt most by graffiti vandalism because it brings down property values and scares away potential customers," Wood said.

Mural Misstep

One local businessman, Jim Herr, president of Parron Hall Office Supplies, wanted to try a different approach.

Herr heard that taggers leave alone graffiti murals like the ones painted in Chicago Park and around vacant and abandoned buildings such as the Lincoln Hotel and others along the Martin Luther King Jr. Promenade.

"Instead of setting up stakeouts and complaining, it hit me that I could do something that would provide public art for the community, an understudy program for young artists and protection for the building," Herr said.

So he hired a handful of well-known local graffiti artists -- including Zodak, Sake, Quazar, Dyse and Persue -- to turn the back wall of his block-long headquarters into a masterpiece.

The unveiling along the railroad tracks between West Ash and Beech streets was scheduled for last month. But several thousand dollars and hundreds of hours later, the building is -- white.

One night, members of a local Hispanic gang called Wop Town showed up while three of the artists were painting and about a dozen more people looked on, Herr said. The gang members took paint and began tagging the building, as well as the car of one of the artists. A tussle broke out, with one gang member striking a spectator with a paint roller.

The artists left and never came back.

"It wasn't worth people's lives," Herr said. "The gang members told officers in the police gang unit that it was a turf issue and it wouldn't be resolved unless one of the artists fought one of them. It was the furthest thing from our minds that this wonderful energy could turn into people being endangered."

A different tack was taken in Chula Vista by John Kendrick, general manager of Iron Mountain, a business-record storage and management company.

The firm's storage facility on L Street is visible from Interstate 5 during the day. The loading dock adjacent to railroad tracks in back is an irresistible expanse for taggers, Kendrick said.

Floodlights and security guards failed to stop the tagging.

"It's such a horrible problem and so embarrassing to bring clients here, we painted our sign white so no one would know this is our building," he said.

Kendrick said he will not renegotiate his lease in Chula Vista because of the graffiti. Instead, he will consolidate operations over the next couple of years at Iron Mountain's Mira Mesa site.

Agencies Against Graffiti

Caltrans wraps concertina wire around freeway signs and poles to discourage tagging. Next year, it will begin to install "rat guards," metal cones that prevent pole climbing, said Jim Larson, Caltrans spokesman.

"We have a lot of concrete canvases out there, and we see daily occurrences of graffiti," Larson said.

Officials of the San Diego Trolley replace from 25 to 100 trolley car windows a week because of a new form of graffiti called etching, in which taggers or gang members carve their initials in glass with small gem-cutting tools.

The city of San Diego has established a graffiti hot line for people to report graffiti strikes and to answer questions about how to deal with the problem.

Because there is a growing crossover between graffiti vandalism and more traditional gang violence, the San Diego Police Department formed a graffiti detail in February with two full-time detectives.

The unit is keeping records on graffiti so that, when a vandal is caught, tags linked to that person can be used to assess damages. Graffiti vandals face community service, fines, suspension of driving privileges and jail time. Their parents are now liable for up to $10,000 worth of property damage.

In Chula Vista, one of the hardest hit cities in the county, a graffiti program has been set up by South Bay Community Services and the Chula Vista Police Department. Technically, business owners like Kendrick at Iron Mountain are responsible for cleaning up their own buildings. But the program provides free recycled paint and labor in the form of juveniles performing community service.

North County, Too

But this is not just a South County problem.

In Vista last month, volunteers donned coveralls and marched through town, paint rollers in hand, to cover graffiti-ravaged walls as part of the Chamber of Commerce's "Vista Pride Week."

The mural approach may be tried in Vista. Later this month, its city council is expected to vote on murals for Raintree Park and the side of the Curbside Cafe downtown -- two sites frequently hit by taggers.

"In a relative sense, we don't have a lot. But no matter how little, graffiti is disturbing," said Norm Ginsburg, an analyst with Vista's Public Works Department.

"It's a sign that, no matter how hard we try, there is a basic sickness in our community and a certain percentage of kids are going to be antisocial and express their hate and anger this way."