CARRBORO - Police Chief Carolyn Hutchison is convinced the problem is getting worse. “It’s on buildings. It’s on signs. It’s on bike paths. It’s on private property. It’s on public property,” she says.
Nathan Milian rattles off the spots:
There’s the loading dock outside the DSI Comedy Theater, the transfer box behind Harris Teeter, the wall on the old Fleet Feet building facing the railroad tracks.
The property manager at Carr Mill Mall knows the spots because he spends a lot of money cleaning them up. Last year, he estimates, he spent $3,000 removing graffiti and glued-on fliers.
“It used to be once in a blue moon,” Milian said. “Now it’s almost weekly. ... In many instances it requires repainting a whole wall.”
The Carrboro Police Department has received 14 graffiti complaints this year. Last year, from March through December, the town received 35 complaints.
The numbers don’t reflect all incidents because some property owners and tenants don’t report graffiti.
Police Chief Carolyn Hutchison is convinced the problem is getting worse.
“It’s on buildings. It’s on signs. It’s on bike paths. It’s on private property. It’s on public property,” she said.
Hutchison blames anarchists for much of the graffiti increase.
”Anarchists have claimed the area and are marking their territory,” she told town officials in an email this month.
Their symbols – a capital letter A, sometimes inside a circle; a skull with an A on the forehead – show up frequently. A big skull spray painted on the yellow back wall along Merritt Mill Road has looked out over a vacant lot for months.
Neal Richards, a local anarchist who participated in the Yates Motor and CVS demonstrations, referred questions about graffiti to Internet websites. Many sites confirm the anarchist connection to the letter A and skull symbols.
The local anarchists have been under fire from some residents since a group of self-described “anti-capitalist” activists broke in to the former Yates Motor Co. buildings on West Franklin Street and the former WCOM radio station building bought by CVS for a future drug store on North Greensboro St.
CVS put up a fence after the February incident, but that didn’t stop someone from climbing over and spray painting “Strike Occupy Resist” on the particle board covering the glass front doors. The March 3 incident is the most recent act on the Police Department’s graffiti list. The town spent $33.32 to remove it, according to bills for paint rollers and other supplies from Fitch Lumber.
In an interview, Hutchison said she doesn’t want to say all that police are doing or may do.
Officers have looked for graffiti taggers, she said. But much of the activity happens between 2 and 6 a.m., and the department, authorized at 41 officers, has two positions frozen and two more vacant.
“The best case is that you catch them in the act ... but again, where do you look? And how many officers do you want to have doing that?” Hutchison said.
“It’s easy,” she added. “It’s a very quick crime to do.”Main Street mess
Photographer Jesse Kalisher’s gallery has been on Main Street nearly four years, and graffiti has been a problem from the start, he said.
“We get it on the Dumpster. We’ve had it on the door. We’ve got it in a bunch of places,” Kalisher said.
Former Carrboro police officer Paul Atherton, when he was on the force, would often get out of his truck and personally clean the graffiti.
“He said he used brake fluid or something,” Kalisher said, “and it worked.”
But now the graffiti taggers have hit the building’s brick walls. Kalisher said his landlord will have to repaint at a likely cost of several thousand dollars – and then repaint if the taggers strike again.
“I don’t think it’s the town’s responsibility to remove the graffiti,” Kalisher said. “That’s not my decision to make. I will say l think it’s the town’s responsibility to come up with a plan to fight the graffiti.”
Carrboro spends about $3,000 a year removing graffiti and stickers from public property, said street superintendent David Poythress.
The sticker adhesive can be a bigger problem than spray paint because when applied to metal, it can damage a sign’s reflectivity, he said. When that happens, the town has has to replace the sign. ‘The small stuff’
In Chapel Hill, police spokesman Lt. Kevin Gunter says the town can’t document a graffiti trend.
The department recorded 20 incidents in the downtown business district in 2011, the same as in 2009, according to police reports. There was only one reported incident in 2010.
In all of Chapel Hill, there were 63 total graffiti incidents in 2010 and 2011, versus 50 cases in 2009, Gunter said.
Police can’t extract how many incidents may have been anarchist-related or explain the single graffiti incident recorded for the downtown business district, Gunter said.
But, as in Carrboro, many incidents don’t reach police.
Meg McGurk, the assistant director for the Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, thinks she has seen an uptick in the past year, though not necessarily anarchist related.
“It wasn’t like the big stuff,” she said. “It was the small stuff – literally tagging on everything.”
The partnership sends out volunteers who remove graffiti several times a year she said.
And personally McGurk says she has mixed feelings about graffiti as a form of expression.
“I absolutely adore street art,” she said. “I do see some of it as artistic expression, but it’s hard when it’s just a scrawled word on every street light, on every street sign.”Higher rents
Milian, the mall manager, said the taggers don’t realize who they’re hurting.
Landlords pass cleanup costs on to their tenants, “their own neighbors,” in the form of higher rent, he said.
Kalisher, who recently wrote to town officials about his experiences, wants to see police or someone do more.
The town should consider forming a public private partnership to attack the problem or having certain types of criminal offenders clean it up as community service, he said.
“If you let the graffiti take over, it sends the message the town doesn’t care, that the people who live here don’t care,” Kalisher said.
“If you let small things go, it sends the wrong message, and you end up with bigger problems on your hands.”