Vandals and taggers, beware

After months of planning, City Hall rolls out controversial graffiti task force

In mid-March, Atlanta police Officer Ari Bleifeld ended his days of checking out robberies and writing accident reports in Little Five Points for a new job title: anti-graffiti enforcer.

Effective immediately, Bleifeld's bosses expect the five-year veteran cop to identify vandals, arrest and book offenders, and work with prosecutors to ensure that the scofflaws behind the tags and uncommissioned murals dotting Atlanta's public walls, buildings and overpasses face the consequences.

"The community is embracing the idea that the department is looking at this as an issue that needs to be dealt with," says Bleifeld, who's spent recent evenings at neighborhood meetings to promote the task force and his new role. "There's been an outcry among some people for so long. And the city is legitimizing their concerns by assigning someone to the problem."

Bleifeld is the enforcement arm of the city's graffiti task force, a multidepartmental effort which, after months of planning and organization, will officially kick off its mission on May 7 at the Hill Street underpass, a well-known graffiti spot near Decatur Street. Launched late last year by Parks Commissioner George Dusenbury, the task force says eradicating Atlanta's public walls of tags and graffiti could result in improved quality of life.

Anyone who notices graffiti on public property can call a hotline manned by the Department of Public Works, which will try to clean up the piece within three days, a department spokeswoman says. If a home- or business owner whose property has been tagged wants to press charges, Bleifeld will be dispatched to start an investigation. In both cases, he'll likely document the work, be it tag, sticker or mural. Since being assigned to the beat, Bleifeld's been researching tagging crews and graffiti styles, sifting through past acts of vandalism to identify patterns of behavior, and launching investigations. The initiative's biggest component, city officials say, will be community participation in the form of neighborhood cleanups and educational programs.

City officials also have taken great pains to assert that they have no intention of stifling the creative spirit that's blossomed in Atlanta's street art scene. "We recognize there is a line between artistic expression that's wanted and straight-out vandalism," says APD spokesman Carlos Campos. Working with WonderRoot, the Reynoldstown nonprofit arts center, the city's Office of Cultural Affairs canvassed the city and selected a total of 29 standout murals to avoid whitewashing. (See the list of 'protected' wall art and murals here.) As one would expect, murals commissioned by the city and county governments and as part of the Atlanta Beltline project will be preserved. The same goes with works created during Living Walls, the 2010 conference in which artists painted extensive works on private property with the owners' permission. Camille Love, director of Cultural Affairs, says city workers will not come onto private property to remove graffiti.

However, there are arguably many familiar and long-standing pieces of street art that do not appear on the list of protected murals. As of now, the fate of the Krog Street tunnel, the ever-changing, graffiti-covered canvas linking Inman Park and Cabbagetown, remains unclear. Should the city and railroad company CSX, which owns the tunnel, designate the space as a free zone, Bleifeld says it'd be "paradoxical" for him to arrest or investigate anyone who tags or spray paints there. CSX didn't return calls for comment.

Whether all this activity — the hotline, the dedicated line of communication between the cops and prosecutors, the educational programs — will actually have an impact on such a whack-a-mole problem as graffiti is anyone's guess. Public Works has allocated no extra funding to remove the works, and Atlanta's nascent task force pales in comparison to similar programs found in other cities. Portland, for instance, requires businesses to keep a log of spray paint buyers. And Denver has eight workers, eight trucks and the assistance of two full-time detectives to respond to 150 to 200 graffiti removal requests every day.

"If I could get 20 to 25 trucks dedicated to graffiti, we could probably put a dent in the problem," says Denver Partners Against Graffiti Operations Supervisor Richard Villa.

Street artists and members of the arts community interviewed for this story have mixed views on the city's efforts. Some, including WonderRoot Executive Director Chris Appleton, suggest the best way to curb tagging — which appears to be city's main target — is to increase the number of murals and wall art it commissions from local artists.

"Buffing walls is no solution to stopping people from vandalizing other people's private property," says Appleton. "What is a solution is expending the same resources to commission artists to put art work on the walls. That's a tried-and-true method of preventing the tagging. And I wish that would happen."

Others think that designating certain areas as "free walls" would allow budding graffiti artists to practice their craft free from prosecution. Love says she thinks such a concept would be successful, but it isn't part of the equation yet.

Two street artists who asked not to be identified say they expect the task force to have little to no impact on the graffiti community; graff writers, they say, would simply become more daring. Or, knowing they could be caught any moment, would create rushed, sloppy work. One artist hopes the city would recognize that a budding street art movement — creating works that contribute to the visual richness of the urban landscape — exists in the grey area between the ne'er-do-wells scribbling their names on utility boxes and the artists painting elaborate murals beneath bridges.

"All of this 'anti-graffiti' hype is nothing more than window-dressing for politicians," says "NEVER," an Atlanta street artist. "They're too incompetent to deal with real issues, so they talk up silly shit. This war on graffiti is much like the war on drugs in that it will never end. Waste of time and money. They can argue all they want that graffiti in a given demographic leads to the cause of more serious crimes, and I totally understand where someone would get that idea. But paint on a wall doesn't rob you at gunpoint."

Regardless, Bleifeld says he has his orders. And the assignment intrigues him.

"Quite honestly, I like the cat-and-mouse game a little bit," he says. "A lot of the reason the graffiti community does it is they see it as a bit of a game. What fun is the game if the other side isn't playing?"