Compulsion for notoriety prompts riskier behavior, more tagging in suburbs - News Journal
Attention-craving blamed for vandalism
Compulsion for notoriety prompts riskier behavior, more tagging in suburbs
BY TERRI SANGINITI AND IRA PORTER • THE NEWS JOURNAL • MAY 17, 2009
They practice at night in out-of the-way underpasses, learning to paint colorful layers of elaborate graffiti within minutes.
When their routines are perfected, they move above ground, often competing to vandalize highly visible spots on bridges, billboards and rooftops.
One online video -- produced by a notorious tagger known as Pervert -- shows him from various angles painting complex black-and-blue designs with his face blacked out. It also documents his work on an overpass, a tunnel and numerous railroad cars.
Though he has never been arrested, other taggers have. And what was found in their homes gives an insight into their obsession.
Everything in one tagger's Wilmington bedroom was covered with graffiti, including the door, walls, furniture, even the computer keyboard, police said. The room also was full of graffiti banners, spray-paint canisters, sketch books, three-ring binders and four notebooks full of graffiti designs.
Taggers -- especially those who risk their lives scaling heights -- are a loosely aligned collection of vandals whose work is visible across northern Delaware. Now their work is becoming more noticeable in suburban communities such as Pike Creek, Hockessin and Greenville, where tags are turning up on trees, fences, street signs and sheds.
The cost to remove their damage -- estimated at millions per year -- has motivated state, New Castle County and local police to join forces to identify and arrest the taggers.
"All the people who drive by can see it," said Kim Royal about the words "Spun" and "Fake" that were scrawled on the Pike Creek Animal Hospital along Polly Drummond Hill Road, where she works as a dog groomer. "Whoever it is, really likes themselves."
Police and experts agree.
The most prolific taggers are mostly teenagers who think of themselves as artists, police said. They don't think of their work as vandalism, don't fear police and are motivated by a desire to earn respect by painting as much visible graffiti as possible.
"They all come from artistic backgrounds and a lot of these kids are very gifted, they're just using it the wrong way," said Officer Phil Young, who investigates taggers for the Elsmere police.
Though taggers come from all racial and economic backgrounds, the majority in Delaware are white middle- to upper-class youths ranging in age from 13 to 22, police said.
"It's a whole culture that people don't know about," said New Castle County police Officer LaVincent Harris. "It's their life. ... If you can't read it, so what? They want respect and notoriety."
One tagger, Derrick Noel, also known as Easy, was arrested last year and faces trial next month for causing an estimated $500,000 in damage by vandalizing CSX rail cars, police said.
Now 20, he grew up in a three-bedroom, two-story yellow colonial-style home in Milltown, records show.
When police raided his home, they seized a computer, camera, sketchbooks, photographs, more than 150 paint cans, bags full of specialty spray caps and paintings with the tags "Ease," "Easy" and "Easyone," according to court records.
Keanan Connell, 19, known as Skum, grew up in a three-bedroom, two-story home in Marshallton. He was arrested as a juvenile in 2006 and 2007 for causing thousands of dollars in damage to businesses and private property throughout New Castle County, court records show.
He also tagged two electronic message boards on I-95, one south of Del. 141, and the other near Del. 72 outside Newark, police said. When he was arrested again recently, he had 11 cans of spray paint, court records show.
A 17-year-old from Greenville -- who calls himself Ceven or Cevan -- has been arrested three times since December, most recently for tagging 25 businesses and other locations in Newark, according to court records.
He is in 11th grade and lives with his parents in a secluded five-bedroom home that boasts a full-size double skateboard ramp covered in graffiti in the basement, police said.
Christopher M. Rathmanner, 18, was arrested last month for spray-painting a stone marker worth $80,000 at the entrance to the Mt. Cuba Center on Barley Mill Road, police said.
He lives in a three-bedroom home in the Elsmere area.
He also was captured on surveillance video, which led to his identification and arrest.
In search of notoriety
The most aggressive taggers are members of more than a dozen local bands with names like Fast Hands Crew, Real Deal Squad, Public Terrorists and Silent Urban Destruction.
Some focus on highway signs, trucks or rail cars that can be seen by thousands. Others videotape their graffiti -- and themselves painting it -- and post it online.
In all, there are about 50 taggers in New Castle County, authorities said. There also are hundreds of "toys" -- younger, inexperienced writers who aspire to move up the ranks.
One Delaware tagger posted a video online nine months ago showing himself wearing black gloves and demonstrating how he paints graffiti in less than two minutes.
The 2:36-minute video garnered 3,100 views.
Another video posted last month by Fast Hands Productions, features a compilation of another tagger's vandalism and news clips about his April 2008 arrest. It was posted last month by EASY B2B and got nearly 1,000 views.
The video posted by Pervert, of the Fast Hands Crew, documents his oversized work to music and has gotten more than 3,300 hits since last April.
"They post what they do and want to share their knowledge," Harris said.
But to become widely known, it takes practice.
To do that, one group of taggers took over an abandoned building on secluded Liberty Street in Wilmington -- a block sandwiched between I-95 and the Amtrak line -- where its members find the seclusion needed to rehearse, police said.
"You can take your time here and put up a piece, take a picture of it and you're outta here," Harris said. "The only people around are the homeless, and they won't bother you."
Parents are usually surprised
Though some parents suspect something is wrong, most don't want to believe their child is doing something illegal, Young said.
"The first day I meet them is through a search warrant," he said. "They express total shock."
That's how one Wilmington mother felt when state police came to her door last month and arrested her 16-year-old son for tagging a liquor store on March 3, she said.
"I was shocked as could be," she said. "Never in a million years would I have suspected my son."
She said the teen is a member of his school's wrestling team and a straight-A student. He was introduced to the graffiti crew Public Terrorists in March by a fellow wrestler, who is the group's leader, she said.
"When the cop called me and was talking about taggers, I had no idea" what he was talking about, she said. "I know it sounds like I look like a naive parent."
Thinking back, she realizes that in March she noticed her son started having paint on his fingers and explained it to her as paint markers.
He also had paint on his pants and started missing school, she said.
Two weeks ago, her son was sentenced to 300 hours of community service, 150 of it cleaning graffiti. He also was ordered by the court to stop hanging out with the Public Terrorists crew and has been staying at home, she said.
"I think it's over," she said. "I hope to God it's over. My son seems to be back to his old self. I don't want my son doing this."
Brazen, bold and destructive
To their victims, taggers are anything but artists.
That's the case with Bill Applegate, campus manager for Smith and Solomon Commercial Driver Training School in Newark, who said five tractor-trailers, two buses and a box truck were vandalized over two weekends in February.
"It was the illuminating red spray paint and thick black spray paint that's hard to remove," he said. "We had somebody to appraise the damage -- approximately $10,000. They had to take the paint all the way down to the base. I spent hours over three days trying to remove the stuff myself."
"They're brazen," he said. "They don't seem to care much."
Vandals also hit Toys R Us in Christiana twice in November by climbing onto the store's roof to spray-paint the tags "Read," "Junk" and "Axion" on the rear of its sign, which can be seen from I-95. After the graffiti was painted over, it was quickly replaced with more that read "You've Been Struck by ...Smoothkriminals..08," police said.
A 16-year-old from Willow Run, who uses the tag Read, was arrested last month for some of the vandalism. The others are still at large.
The Hockessin Indoor Tennis building at 4101 Newport Gap Pike recently had black and blue paint sprayed with the tags Kush and Hedak on its white walls.
"It's bold," said Dean Whetham, of Titus Performance Training, a group that works out at the facility in the off season.
"You can see it from the road when you're driving up," he said. "I don't know if there is anything that can be done. They clearly do this at night and it's easy for them to get away because they can see police lights or lights from other cars coming down the street."
Rosemary Orsini, of John Orsini Top Soil at 4328 Mill Creek Road in Hockessin, has spent thousands of dollars to paint over graffiti on his while-walled mushroom house.
"It's been going on for a long time, because once these graffiti guys start, others follow," she said. "It's a big nuisance. They've hit here the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, in March and on April 15."
Two teens were captured on video tagging the wall in less than three minutes in the rain.
The surveillance shows a dark car pull up, two teens jump out and jump in again after painting the wall.
"So the idea is that they are not doing it by themselves," said state police Cpl. Jeff Whitmarsh. "Somebody's stopping the car, somebody's running out, somebody's looking out, then back in the car and off they go."
Painting graffiti also leads to other crimes such as shoplifting, theft and intimidation, police said.
That's because taggers often shoplift their supplies. They also turn violent when one tagger or crew goes to an area where another has staked his claim and paints over his tag.
"It's all about respect and prestige," Harris said.
This year, arrests are up at state police Troop 6 on Kirkwood Highway, where troopers investigated 74 cases and made 24 arrests.
"We're getting much better at reading graffiti and we work with the school resource officers to identify these artists and make stronger cases," said state police Lt. Pete Sawyer.
Troopers at state police Troop 1 at Penny Hill investigated 28 recent cases and made two arrests.
To combat the wave, the New Castle County Anti-Graffiti Task Force was formed about two weeks ago to pool resources to be better able to identify taggers. If, for example, a vandal paints graffiti in the county, Elsmere and Wilmington, police in each of those areas could share information and charge him with multiple offenses all at once rather than one at a time.
If convicted, taggers face stiffer penalties for felonies including restitution, higher fines and more hours of community service.
An Elsmere town ordinance also requires parents of taggers to accompany their child on 100 hours of their community service sentence.
"Make no mistake, they may be misguided artists but they're also committing criminal acts," Whitmarsh said.
Delaware last year beefed up its punishments for people caught painting graffiti.
$500 -- Minimum fine that cannot be suspended.
$2,300 -- Maximum fine.
Six months -- Maximum jail term for having tools that are used to paint graffiti, a misdemeanor.
One year -- Maximum sentence for causing property damage costing less than $1,500, a misdemeanor.
Two years -- Maximum sentence for causing property damage costing $1,500 or more, a felony.
Teen-agers could be involved with graffiti taggers if the following are found around the house:
• Numerous cans of spray paint around the house.
• Plastic bags with specialized tips for cans of spray paint.
• Extremely large paint markers.
• Canvases, boards or scrapbooks with the same words written repeatedly.
• Paint on clothes or shoes.
• Artwork stored on computers.
Source: Elsmere Police Department
Staff reporter Sean O'Sullivan contributed to this story. Contact Terri Sanginiti at 324-2771 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact Ira Porter at 324-2890 or email@example.com
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