'Tag team'-ing vandalism in Rose Village

Armed with soap, scrubbers and power washers, a group of residents takes to the streets once a month to clean up graffiti in hopes of discouraging future tagging of buildings, signs

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter



 Photo Gallery: Battling vandalism in Rose Village

A group of Rose Village residents takes to the streets once a month to clean up graffiti in hopes of discouraging future tagging of buildings, signs.

photoClick to enlarge.

What is a graffiti tag?

Whether the work of turf-hungry gang members or bored teenagers with too much time on their hands, graffiti poses a number of problems. It creates a headache for property owners, an eyesore for passers-by and a question for police officers to answer: What does it all mean?

It depends on what the graffiti says. The acronyms, colors and symbols associated with graffiti all have their own meanings. Police have cracked the code on what some of the more prominent tags mean.

Sureños or Norteños: These two rival gangs began making headway in Clark County in the 1990s. Their tags are easily identifiable and often color-coded: blue for Sureño, red for Norteño. In some cases, authorities say, an increase in tagging activity will precede a rise in violence. Other times, the gangs are just marking turf. If they see a competing gang’s sign, they’ll cross it out and write theirs on top of it.

DWK: The recurring acronym stands for “Death Wish Krew,” made up of a loose affiliation of taggers who run in the same circle. The tags aren’t explicitly gang-related, police say, but some of the “Krew” members are thought to be affiliated with gangs.

RMH: These letters stand for “Real Money Hustlers,” another crew that tags walls primarily in West Vancouver.

ME: A prominent tagger whose graffiti once lit up Vancouver walls before he or she apparently stopped tagging.

Walls and signs in Vancouver's Rose Village neighborhood look like they harbor alien hieroglyphics. But far from being extraterrestrial in origin, the mishmash of symbols is the work of vandals. Armed with Sharpies, spray-paint cans and their own unique language, they strike at night.

Residents of Rose Village say they've had enough. Not only do they see the writing on the wall, they know exactly what it means: They've got a big problem on their hands.

Graffiti is a growing concern in the neighborhood, so much so that neighborhood residents have started gathering on weekends to wipe walls and other graffiti-sullied surfaces clean. The Vancouver Police Department is aware of the apparent rise in vandalism there and elsewhere, but authorities say there's only so much they can do when private property is "tagged," lingo for when vandals hit a wall with graffiti.

So enter the so-called "tag teams," groups of residents who take it upon themselves to wipe away graffiti in their neighborhoods.

Chris Haberthur is an organizer of Rose Village's cleanups. He said it's important for residents to take the lead in efforts to scrub away a neighborhood's unsightly tags.

"If something gets tagged, and you happen to see it a few times, you tend to think of it as a bigger problem," Haberthur said. "So if you don't take care of it, the problem tends to multiply."

Sociologists call it the "broken windows theory." The theory posits that fixing a broken window — or in this case, cleaning up graffiti — shows that a neighborhood won't tolerate disorder. At times, it can seem like playing a game of Whack-a-Mole ad infinitum, knocking down one tag before another inevitably arises.

Still, neighborhood residents say they're confident they'll see results if they keep at it.

In Rose Village, neighbors have twice taken to the streets — armed with soap, scrubbers, power washers and a substance called "elephant snot," a viscous goop that dissolves graffiti — in January and February. They plan to make the cleanups a monthly occurrence.

There's been an uptick in vandalism in a number of neighborhoods, including Lincoln, Rose Village, Hough and Minnehaha, all on the west side of town, Vancouver police Cpl. Drue Russell said. Although the number of reports of graffiti has dropped since a peak in 2011, tagging remains high.

A disturbing number of the tags are gang-related, Russell said.

The majority of graffiti seen around town is the work of run-of-the-mill vandals, who either work independently or run with a "crew — an affiliation of vandals who like to mark their territory with a specific symbol, akin to leaving a calling card behind. Russell points to a prominent group of taggers who go by the name "Death Wish Krew," or DWK for short.

"That's more of a group or set of kids, young adults really, who are taggers," Russell said. "They'll claim to be part of a specific crew, but it gets a little fuzzy because some of the taggers are also gang members."

Whether gang-related or not, studies indicate that group dynamics play a significant role in tagging. A 2007 paper on tagging published in the "Journal of Adolescent Literacy & Adult Literacy" concludes that youths use tagging as an avenue to declare membership.

The group aspect of tagging is worrisome to people who've seen their property hit by tags.

In the Hudson's Bay neighborhood, a residential enclave near Pearson Field, Marie Trip awoke last month to see the wall outside her house had been tagged with spray paint.

Finding graffiti so close to her home gave Trip pause for thought. What if vandals walked up to the front door one night and rattled the knob to see if it was unlocked?

It was an unsettling thought for Trip, who's lived in the home with her husband, a retired Army colonel, since 2001.

"I felt violated. I felt mad," Trip said of finding the graffiti right outside her door. "But then I thought: There's nothing you can do about it."

Authorities say people should document graffiti, report it to the police and then clean it up as quickly as possible.

The department keeps tabs on the number of graffiti incidents, collating them into different categories, including gang-related or simple vandalism. They also actively pursue vandals, Russell said.

Extra emphasis is placed on keeping tabs on gang graffiti, which can often precede a rise in violence, Russell said.

For Haberthur, the Rose Village resident, erasing graffiti will take time.

"The motivating part is that it's an uphill battle," Haberthur said. "You might see it accumulate in other places and it just doesn't get cleaned up."

Tyler Graf: 360-735-4517; http://twitter.com/col_smallcities; tyler.graf@columbian.com.