Red Tape vs. Red Paint – A Series Part I

Anti-Graffiti Effort Moves to 
Prevention

BY RICK RUGGLES

 WORLD – HERALD STAFF WRITER

An outbreak of graffiti in Omaha has been quelled, for now.

 Neighbourhood and city leaders are considering ways to prevent the rash of graffiti that marred several hundred
garages, houses and businesses last winter. Some of their proposals are creative. Some are punitive. All stem
from a belief that graffiti is ugly, intimidating and criminal.

”It is not urban art,” said Police Capt. Mark Sundermeier. “Plain and simple, it’s thuggery.”

The city faced a backlog of more than 300 graffiti sites at the beginning of March. City Council members on 
March 23 threatened to get out their own paintbrushes and go to work on the problem unless the Public Works
 Department and its graffiti van hastened cleanup efforts.

Mike DeSelm, a public-works administrator who oversees graffiti abatement, said that through overtime 
by dozens of workers, the backlog has been cut to about 20 sites. 

Mary Ann Krzemien, a member of the South Omaha Neighborhood Association, said the efforts have made a
difference.

 “It was just delightful to drive around today and see it (graffiti) greatly reduced,” she said Thursday.

Nevertheless, no one imagines that the problem has been solved. 

”It comes in waves,” said Councilman Paul Koneck, who represents South Omaha.

 Many say graffiti is a perplexing problem because efforts to combat it, and the publicity that comes with 
them, sometimes are perceived by graffiti vandals as a challenge. It stimulates them to splotch more spots 
than ever. 

”We have people who feel that every time you fight graffiti, you increase it,” said Virgil Armendariz Jr.,
president of the South Omaha Business Association.

 Numerous groups and individuals have made up their minds – they will fight it.

 Among the proposals and plans:

 South Omaha business and neighborhood groups are considering asking merchants to question large 
purchases of paint by minors and to display paint in secure places to reduce theft. The South Omaha 
Business Association has scheduled a meeting for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Henry Doorly Zoo Auditorium to discuss those and other concepts. 

Omaha police are increasing graffiti investigations and intend to crack down harder on graffiti vandals,
 Sundermeier said. More specific plans will be unveiled soon.

Mayor Hal Daub will ask the City Council this year to help him recommend state legislation that would 
prevent those who have been convicted of graffiti crimes from obtaining drivers’ licenses until they are 18 or 21.

The Omaha Student Democrats organized a group of students from South High School and other schools to 
paint over graffiti on Saturday.

When student leaders at South sought student volunteers two weeks ago, 78 signed up. About 40
 students, most of them from South, showed up at 10 a.m. Saturday in the school parking lot despite cold
 and rain. Although the weather didn’t dampen their volunteerism, it did cause their work to be called off.
 They plan to try again before this year’s graduation.

 Matt Whipkey, a member of the Omaha Student Democrats and a senior at Gross High School, said
 plenty of young people despise graffiti as much as everyone else. Young people are concerned that adults
 are painting all of them as vandals, he said.

 Graffiti is “a symbol of violence and hatred that’s placed right on the main streets for everyone to see,” Whipkey 
said. “We’re doing our part to help eliminate it. . . . The only way to stop it is to keep on fighting it.”

South High School social studies teachers offered their students extra credit if they helped with the 
cleanup. Seniors Julia Schmidt and John Engesser said that they’ll take the credit but that it wasn’t their main
 motivation for showing up Saturday.

 “Graffiti gives south Omaha a bad ghetto name,” Engesser said. “We wanted to help clean the 
community up and give south Omaha a better name.”

Many of the places on the students’ painting list were in south Omaha. But several were west of 84th Street, 
including one on 157th Street.

 Sundermeier said graffiti is a citywide problem, not just a south Omaha problem.

The perpetrators include gang 
members who want to mark their territory, people who envision themselves as urban artists and copycats and
 pranksters.

Graffiti can intimidate and terrorize a neighborhood, Sundermeier said, because it conveys the notion that 
those who live there have little control over their community and property. 

”It’s really saying to the people in that neighborhood, ‘You are ours,’ ” Sundermeier said. “We’re saying that
that’s wrong. “

Police do make arrests in graffiti cases and plan to make more, he said. Two men in their 20s recently
were sentenced to 30 days in jail for graffiti crimes, he said. 

Graffiti can lead to violence, he said. One gang paints a spot and another comes along to cover it with its own
 markings.

 “They’ll answer back and forth with paint for a while,” he said. They also have been known to squabble 
physically over graffiti, he said, and to shoot each other over it.

The city’s graffiti van became a key element in the fight against graffiti when it was deployed a little less than a
year ago. The van has computer technology that enables its operators to cover graffiti with paint that
matches the color on the surface.
 But the equipment doesn’t function smoothly in cold weather, and one van can do only so much. Now,
DeSelm said, the city is focusing more on simply covering graffiti with gray and white paint rather than
 taking the time necessary for an excellent color match. 

Krzemien said Omahans expected too much of the graffiti van. The van has done good work, she said, but
 citizens have lost the sense that they must take it upon themselves to cover the graffiti as soon as possible.
 And that, she said, is key in fighting graffiti.

 “It needs to come off immediately to discourage the activity,” Krzemien said. “Just slap paint over it and get 
it off. “

Daub and Councilman Subby Anzaldo have discussed proposing a system in which a property owner would 
have to pay a fee for graffiti-van services after a certain number of visits to that site. The council decided
 against implementing such a charge in 1998. 

If a fee were in place, Daub said, some might cover the graffiti or be more inclined to turn in offenders.

 Krzemien said neighborhoods should not wait for the graffiti van. They should not permit the spray-painted
 messages and messes to remain on buildings and walls even briefly, she said. 

”We talk zero tolerance – well, let’s do it,” she said. Graffiti “represents aggression, it represents
psychological intimidation. . . . Gang members and other vandals who put it here get free advertising. What 
a deal.”