Drive through Santa Barbara’s downtown neighborhoods, and it doesn’t take long to find the etchings that pop up without warning, often overnight.
Black jagged scrawls tattoo buildings and walls, each signaling a skirmish between culprits and a city that endlessly works to paint over the offenses.
“Tagging” has become ubiquitous for residents of Santa Barbara’s Eastside and Westside neighborhoods, and new sightings can be a near-daily occurrence. But the Police Department is working behind the scenes to apprehend — and prosecute — the offenders.
Graffiti is a problem with an increasingly high price tag. Detective and graffiti expert Ben Ahrens of the Police Department’s Youth Services Section estimates that graffiti cleanup has cost the city about $1.3 million in the past two years.
Ahrens and Detective Mike Brown sat down with Noozhawk at department headquarters this month to talk about the trends police are seeing.
In Santa Barbara, there are many different tagging “crews,” groups of three or four individuals who get together to spray-paint symbols and monikers, usually on public property.
Ahrens said it’s done primarily for two reasons. The first comes when gang members are marking their territory, challenging a rival gang or intimidating citizens who live in their territory.
Police have seen an increase in gang-related graffiti since the beginning of February, though detectives aren’t exactly sure why. That type of activity tends to come in cycles, Ahrens said, and gang-related graffiti tends to be less ornamental.
During a ride-along last week, gang suppression officer Chris Martinez pointed out some of the gang graffiti that pops up. His first stop was a wooden footbridge that spans a creek at Cacique and Voluntario streets. Gang members have been known to hang out at the bridge, and their markings are all over the area.
Martinez points out several gang signs that have been etched into the pavement at the entrance of the bridge. One of the largest lists “ES” for the Eastside, a “TR” connoting the specific gang, and then an X3, which signals the gang’s prison affiliation.
Martinez said there’s a lot of information to be gathered from graffiti, and that he and other officers are constantly in communication about what pops up around town.
The other type of tagging comes with the crews that focus on the activity more as an art form, and bubble lettering, large murals and more ornamental style are characteristic of this type of tagging.
“They’re actually causing more property damage than any gang member,” Brown said, because of the size and monetary amount of damage.
Highway walls present a fresh canvas for larger “pieces” that could take up a whole wall with an individual or crew name. During the ride-along, Martinez, Sgt. James Ella and Officer Nathan Beltran showed Noozhawk several tagging hotspots, one below a highway overpass and another in a large drainage ditch, the walls of both covered with multicolored images and lettering.
These tagging crews “aren’t just kids wanting to be kids,” Brown said, but are groups with a wide age range from 12 to adults in their 30s and 40s. But these crews are “getting to be just as hard core as gang members.” That’s because it has become more territorial, as crews tag a wall and then another crew will come up and paint over the piece. Brown said that’s where the line is occasionally crossed from vandalism to crimes such as assault with a deadly weapon.
“We’ve had incidents where members of a crew will confront members of another crew while they’re walking downtown,” he said, adding that the altercation will often occur nowhere near the graffiti.
Ehrens added: “That’s when you start seeing the taggers be absorbed into the gangs themselves,” more for protection than anything else. “We’re still delving into that now, and it’s kind of new territory for us. Now it’s become a problem for us because that criminal street gang has gained members.”
When a crew name or moniker pops up on a wall, police go out and photograph the piece and compare what’s in the department’s graffiti tracker system.
“We’ll be able to see how active one person is, or how active the crew is,” Ehrens said.
It’s an Internet-based system, and all the images taken at the scene are uploaded up into the system. That database is accessed by multiple agencies, and the police have access to Ventura, Santa Maria and Lompoc.
Ehrens said police also may be able to find some video surveillance in the area.
“Video is starting to become our friend,” he said.
Witnesses are also key.
“Even if someone doesn’t go out and confront them, just writing down the information associated with a vehicle or anything that they get into afterwards is really helpful,” Ehrens said. “I’ve solved a graffiti case because a bystander was close enough to see them painting and got the vehicle plate information.”
There’s no way to prosecute someone for tagging unless they’re caught in the act, so Ehrens said it’s crucial that people call police if they see anything.
Anything that causes more than $1,000 in damage counts as felony vandalism, and anything below is a misdemeanor.
The City of Santa Barbara’s Graffiti Hotline number is 805.897.2513, and reports can also be made online by clicking here. Looking Good Santa Barbara can be contacted at 805.897.2526 for a free graffiti removal kit.