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Seattle police say 40 to 50 young people are believed to be responsible for Monday night's vandalism to walls, machinery and picnic benches at Gas Works Park, causing an estimated $8,000 in damage. (Riley Elliott/MyNorthwest.com)

Gas Works Park graffiti spree underscores ongoing battle with taggers

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Cleanup continues at Seattle's Gas Works Park after vandals spray painted graffiti that's being called among the worst the parks department has ever seen.

Seattle police say 40 to 50 young people are believed to be responsible for Monday night's vandalism to walls, machinery and picnic benches, which caused an estimate $8,000 in damage.

It's just the latest in a seemingly never-ending battle that continues to plague the city. One lone detective is tasked with taking down the taggers.

Detective Chris Young has been on the job as Seattle's graffiti detective since 2011. The position was created by the Seattle City Council following an audit of the city's graffiti prevention and removal efforts.

Young says he handles about 800 reports of graffiti in the city every year and personally investigates every one. He's been able to bring a number of vandals to justice.

"Sometimes we catch them in the act and get lucky and sometimes I'm able to do standard investigative techniques like getting security video, license plates and things like that," Young says.

Despite conventional wisdom, almost none of the city's graffiti has anything to do with art or gangs. The vast majority is attributed to what's called the "tagger" subculture, mostly young men in their early 20's "basically doing destruction for its own amusement," he says.

"They get an adrenaline rush from doing something illegal and they get attention from other people in the subculture because they'll take a picture of their tag and put it online and their friends say 'that's sick.'"

It's a costly problem for the city, which spends nearly $2 million annually to clean up and combat graffiti.

While graffiti is a problem across the city, Young says the taggers favor large canvasses like Gas Works Park and abandoned buildings in neighborhoods like Ballard and the International District.

Some taggers go to much bigger and dangerous extremes to make their mark, scaling tall buildings, highway signs or bridges.

Young says he has regular contact with a paraplegic who fell off a bridge while tagging as a young man, breaking his back and losing his arm, but still goes out and does illegal graffiti.

"Part of the appeal is the adrenaline rush. It's like an extreme sport like bungee jumping," he says.

It can make for an extreme headache.

"We saw graffiti on one of the support structures for the Ship Canal Bridge just this week and wondered how they even got there," says Mike Allende, a spokesman with the Washington State Department of Transportation.

WSDOT spends about $185,000 a year on graffiti removal, but simply can't dispatch a crew every time a tagger hits a bridge or highway sign.

"Because then you're talking about having to get special equipment, trucks, lifts, closing lanes, which all cost a lot of money and a lot of time," says Allende.

Even cleaning up graffiti in more accessible places isn't simple. A large obscenity painted on the wall of the tunnel linking Mercer Street to southbound I-5 has been there for weeks.

"We do put a priority on obscenities, racial type stuff. We do try to take it down as fast as we can."

But unlike Seattle, WSDOT doesn't have a dedicated graffiti cleanup crew. Allende says maintenance crews have to balance cleanup with all of their other duties, so they can't immediately respond to every incident. They also have to schedule the work at a time that least inconveniences drivers.

Even though it's a constant battle, Detective Young says it's important to report and cover up graffiti as much and as quickly as possible to deter taggers.

The Seattle Police Department has created an online reporting form to make it easier to report graffiti, and works closely with Seattle Public Utilities to help property owners combat and clean up the vandalism.

Property owners don't have much of a choice. The city's Graffiti Nuisance Ordinance requires property owners to remove graffiti in a timely fashion.

You can learn more about graffiti prevention and removal in Seattle here.

In the case of Monday's Gas Works Park graffiti, Young says he can't comment on specifics because it's an ongoing investigation. But he asks that anyone with information which could help identify the vandals email him at youngc@seattle.gov or call 206-684-5534.


Josh Kerns, MyNorthwest.com
Josh Kerns is an award winning reporter/anchor and host of KIRO Radio's Seattle Sounds (Sunday afternoons 5-6p) and a digital content producer for MyNorthwest.com.
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