The “Vandals Destroying Streets Krew” has left its “VDSK” mark all over the city in recent months. It is composed of at least a half-dozen teenagers who have been responsible for about one-third of the 87 percent increase in graffiti reported over the past year, police say.
The taggers’ activity has not just prompted a successful police investigation that is resulting in multiple arrests, but discussion about whether to strengthen city regulations on how quickly graffiti is painted over — and which property owners are required to do it.
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Section 5-4-14 of the Boulder Revised Code defines graffiti as a “nuisance” because it “constitutes a blight upon the area in which it is located and acts as a catalyst for other antisocial behavior. Prompt removal is the greatest disincentive to graffiti and minimizes the blight and related effects created by graffiti.”
The municipal code requires owners of commercial properties to clean up graffiti within three days, and it outlines the conditions under which the city can enter any property — commercial or residential — to clean up graffiti.
But the actual enforcement of that ordinance has not been to the letter of the law, as city employees have tried to work collaboratively with commercial property owners and give them at least two notices before referring them to the city’s environmental enforcement office for a citation.
Felix Gallo, the city’s transportation and facilities maintenance coordinator, told Boulder Weekly he plans to recommend a stricter approach for how his department notifies property owners of graffiti — and reports violators who don’t clean it up.
In its current form, Gallo says, the ordinance does not apply to owner-occupied private residences. When those properties are tagged, he attempts to notify owners and encourage them to clean up the graffiti, even offering them free paint. But it may take months to get painted over, if the resident is on vacation, for instance.
When it comes to commercial property, however, the city takes a different approach, since those owners are subject to the three-day removal rule. Gallo says when an apartment complex is tagged, for instance, his office sends the owner a letter saying he or she must clean up the graffiti within 72 hours of receipt of the letter. If it is not removed or painted over before that deadline, Gallo says, he sends the owner another letter saying he or she will receive a citation if the tag is not covered up within 10 days.
After that, the case is turned over to environmental enforcement, which assesses fines of $250 for a first offense and $500 for a second offense, according to Jeff Arthur, the city’s interim environmental and zoning enforcement supervisor.
But the fact that it can take weeks to get the graffiti cleaned up can be infuriating to neighbors and passersby.
“We try to work with citizens and neighbors, but that can blow up in our face, because people ask, ‘Why is it taking so long?’” Gallo says.
He plans to notify city council of his intention to remove that additional 10-day window, since the ordinance is five years old and it should be common knowledge by now. Besides, he adds, the quicker graffiti is cleaned up, the less time the tagger has to show it off to his friends.
“Given what’s happened with these [VDSK] kids,” he says, “I think people are getting fed up.”
While the city ordinance authorizes city staff to enter private property and clean up tags themselves, Gallo says his department only does so in extreme cases, like when the graffiti is vulgar or violent.
“We don’t want little kids coming by and seeing a [naughty] picture or a bad word,” he says.
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Det. Tom Dowd of the Boulder Police Department, the intelligence officer charged with investigating cases involving gangs and graffiti, told Boulder Weekly that police have identified seven young men believed to be involved in the Vandals Destroying Streets Krew. Six of those seven have been arrested and charged with defacing property, a misdemeanor. No warrant has been issued for the seventh yet. All are between the ages of 13 and 17.
Dowd estimates that VDSK has been responsible for about one-third of the 87 percent increase in graffiti reported to Boulder police over the past year. And more arrests could be coming.
“There are still a few more taggers from that crew we’re trying to identify,” Dowd says.
The VDSK tags began appearing on the north side of town, primarily in the area bordered by 20th and 30th streets and Valmont Road and Iris Avenue. But it soon spread to other areas of Boulder, including the south side of the city, where buildings near Broadway and Table Mesa were targeted — even a truck at Savers, according to Cmdr. Kim Stewart of the Boulder Police.
A wall at Scott Carpenter Park was tagged, as were Boulder Nissan at 28th Street and Mapleton Avenue and drainage basin walls at 17th Street and Yarmouth Avenue. Dowd says the most common spots for graffiti are probably bike underpasses.
Gallo adds that a wall on the west side of Broadway south of Table Mesa was getting tagged regularly.
“And then they bust these kids, and it didn’t get tagged again until just recently,” he says.
The break in the case came in early June, according to Dowd, when a patrol officer stopped a kid on foot at 30th and Valmont who had a can of spray paint and paint on his fingertips. While initially no graffiti was found in the immediate area, police began interviewing him and discovered that he had been tagging green electrical boxes.
“Follow-up interviews with that kid kind of got the ball rolling,” Dowd says.
He declines to reveal exactly how many crew members he has interviewed, because some are afraid of retaliation from their peers, but Dowd has pieced together enough information to paint a rough picture of how they operated.
He says VDSK members appear to have become acquainted as neighbors, since most are current or former members of a particular residential area. While most tags were painted by the dark of night, some were done in the late afternoon and evening hours, in plain sight, during June and July. The kids would sometimes cross out the tags of competing graffiti crews, he says. New members would be admitted to the group if they painted a tag that won the approval of VDSK leaders. The group may have gotten its start in Lafayette, Dowd says.
(When contacted by Boulder Weekly, Lafayette Police Cmdr. Mark Battersby confirmed that his department handled a few VDSK cases about three months ago, and that Lafayette police are now reaching out to Dowd so the two agencies can share information.)
Dowd is quick to point out that a graffiti crew is not the same as a “gang,” because crews solely tag and are not involved in other crimes. He says gangs, on the other hand, are defined as such because they are involved in multiple criminal activities, from car burglaries to tagging their territory. Boulder does have some active gangs, Dowd says, including Southern California’s Sureños and a local gang known as 34th Street that originated in an area near Valmont and 34th.
But the majority of local graffiti is done by crews, not gangs, he adds. Other graffiti crews that Dowd is actively investigating include those that leave the tags “RSK” and “TWK.”
Police say they need residents to be more active in reporting vandals, and Stewart urges people to call 911 and describe the perpetrators if they see a tagging in progress.
In addition, there is now a new way to report crime online. The Boulder Police Department has launched an application on its website (www.boulderpolice.com) that lets the public file reports via the Internet for things like theft under $1,000, criminal mischief (vandalism), defacing property (including graffiti) and minor traffic accidents.
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As for the punishment the members of VDSK will face if found guilty, Dowd says he hopes it fits the crime.
“The ultimate goal is to have them do graffiti clean-up, but we would also like to see the victims compensated,” he explains.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Peggy Jessel, who is in charge of the juvenile division, says that while she cannot comment specifically on the VDSK case, she agrees that taggers should be made to clean graffiti as part of their punishment.
She says that while the DA’s office does have a highly effective community service program for juvenile offenders, there is no dedicated program for convicted taggers to clean graffiti. But one is coming, thanks to the recent spike in tagging.
“We’d like to see a program geared specifically to graffiti clean-up,” she told Boulder Weekly. “We are working on creating one. … I think having to clean up graffiti all over town, whether it’s theirs or not, is a beautiful punishment.”
Jessel stresses that graffiti is a problem around the county.
“It’s not just Boulder, it’s Longmont and Lafayette and Louisville,” she says.
Even Erie recently saw a nasty case of graffiti late last spring. Erie police say that three kids entered a commercial storage area and tagged a bunch of RVs and boats that were stored there. They were apprehended after one of the kids bragged about the vandalism at school.
Jessel says the punishment for juveniles who commit crimes more serious than tagging can include being locked up for up to 45 days in a juvenile detention center in Greeley. But she says her office places a high priority on alternatives to detention — not just because incarceration is expensive, but because things like restorative justice, in which the perpetrators have to face their victims, can be far more effective.
“Some would say we’re too touchy-feely, and maybe they’re right,” Jessel says. “But a lot of kids we see have experienced trauma. If you don’t address that, you are not going to reach the real problem.”
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Boulder Deputy Mayor Ken Wilson told Boulder Weekly that it is probably time for the council to revisit its graffiti ordinance, and possibly strengthen it.
Wilson, who as a politically active Hill resident was involved in discussions that led to the city’s graffiti ordinance, says that before this summer, it had been about seven years since Boulder had seen a severe graffiti problem.
“The graffiti seems to go in waves,” he says. “It got better with better enforcement, and now it’s on the upswing again.”
Council members have been getting more e-mails about the graffiti problem lately, especially from residents of certain neighborhoods, like Martin Acres and Goss Grove, according to Wilson.
Echoing Gallo, he says national studies show that the best deterrent to tagging is to clean up the graffiti quickly.
“I think there’s a need for property owners to take care of it pretty fast,” he says.
Wilson adds that the council might want to consider expanding the ordinance’s 72-hour clean-up requirement beyond just commercial property owners.
“Maybe we need to extend it to residential,” he says. “Maybe the ordinance needs a little tweaking.”
Requiring owner-occupied residences to clean up graffiti was part of the discussions seven years ago, Wilson says, but the main problem back then was rentals and commercial properties.
Now, he says, if owner-occupied residences have become a bigger part of the problem, it may be time for the city to issue citations to those property owners as well, if they don’t clean up tags in a timely manner.
“Unfortunately, the best education method is a ticket, in most instances,” Wilson says.