‘Surge’ in unsightly graffiti plagues town

Wipe Out Watch volunteer Rachel Coffey cleans away graffiti written on a pole on the levee near the intersection of Thomas Road and Luchessa Avenue. Coffey has been volunteering with the group for almost three years. She takes daily walks on the levee wit

Teens looking for trouble are painting the town red this summer – and blue and pink and yellow – in a destructive pastime of defacing community property, leading the Gilroy Police Department and community volunteers to tackle what they have identified as a “surge” in graffiti over the last few months.

Graffiti is so out of control right now, that Police Sgt. Joseph Deras, GPD Anti-Crime Team investigator, has turned his focus on the problem, despite having his hands full with his usual summer investigations into gang- and drug-related crime.

“We’re spread very thin,” Deras said. “If a shooting happened right now, we’d have to put graffiti busts on hold, because that has to take priority – but that doesn’t make tagging less serious. It really can make a place an unpleasant place to live.”

Deras and his team are in the middle of several graffiti investigations, in hopes to curb some of the graffiti that has been on the rise for the past two months.

“It seems like they are in some kind of a tagging war right now,” Deras said.

Because graffiti is all about sending messages to rival tagging groups, graffiti actually spurs more graffiti – making it difficult to rein in once it escalates.

Deras said Gilroy’s graffiti problem isn’t gang-related, but is more about rival “tag teams” made up of children between 11 and 16 years old who identify with certain cryptic symbols and lettering – but if left unchecked, these young, vandalizing teens could end up caught up in more serious crimes.  

“When the rivals teams see a message, they respond in an even bigger way,” he said.

Deras said that police have made several graffiti arrests this summer, but arresting the offenders doesn’t necessarily lead to placation of the problem. Since taggers are almost always juveniles, they are typically arrested and sent home to parents with a citation the same night.

From there, juvenile graffiti cases are handled by the District Attorney’s Office, where a variety of punishments may be enforced by a judge, including suspension of the juvenile’s driver license, fines and obligatory community service. The problem is that in the meantime, the teens are still on the loose to tag – even the very next day.

“Once we do that, they could come out tomorrow and do the same thing,” Deras said. “And they do.”

The key to curbing graffiti is to remove it right away, so that the messages between rival tagging teams are intercepted.

“If they don’t see the messages, then they won’t retaliate,” Deras said.

Thanks to a group of 65 community volunteers known as the Wipeout Watch who remove graffiti behind the scenes daily, most Gilroyans don’t even see the majority of tagging that goes on regularly.

“If I saw some (graffiti) now, it would most likely be gone within two or three hours, that’s how fast they work,” Deras said. “Most graffiti on city property is eradicated before the public even sees it.”

Wipeout Watch volunteers scour Gilroy streets and parks and trails early in the morning, carrying a paintbrush and buckets of paint, looking for graffiti to wipe out in the neighborhood they are assigned to, which is usually a park or trail near their home. They clean up spray-painted park benches, oil-painted lettering on city bridges, and stop signs littered with stickers, said Rachel Munoz, Wipeout Watch coordinator and GPD community service officer.

“People say ‘Oh Gilroy doesn’t have a graffiti problem,’ and that’s because of those dedicated volunteers. They actually wake up on a mission every morning to get out there and eradicate any graffiti they see. They do this day after day,” she said. “Gilroy would be a very different place without them.”

Munoz said that over the past three months, Wipeout Watch volunteers have responded to 610 calls on the graffiti reporting hotline (408-846-0395), not including the graffiti they find themselves and proactively remove.

Gilroy resident Rachel Coffey, Wipeout Watch volunteer for Christmas Hill Park and the area around the levee on Luchessa Avenue, has been cleaning up graffiti in Gilroy for three years.

Coffey, 68, got involved with Wipeout Watch when she got sick of the graffiti that made her morning walk an eyesore.

“The park is so beautiful and the people who walk it are so nice. I was so annoyed that there were people who wanted to ruin it for everyone,” Coffey said.

Coffey wakes up each morning to take her German shepherd and chocolate Labrador retriever for a walk, stuffing three or four shades of paint, paint remover, paintbrushes and a scrubber in her backpack.

“I’m really proud of Gilroy, and I love when it looks clean,” she said. “And it takes a village to do that.”

Wipeout Watch volunteer Laura Wilson, 34, is a multi-tasker – when she takes her two young children on walks in the Lion’s Creek Trail near Mantelli Drive in their neighborhood, she takes a couple of cans of paint just in case.

Wilson has been volunteering for Wipeout Watch for about six months, and loves it for the lessons she’s teaching her children about serving the community.

“My 5-year-old will say, ‘Hey mom, let’s paint over it,’ and point to graffiti when we’re driving around San Jose, and I explain that that’s not our territory,” she said, laughing.

Wilson said she’s seen a recent spike in graffiti, for reasons she doesn’t understand.

“It seems to have exploded,” she said.

In addition to the 600-plus calls to the graffiti reporting line, the GPD received 173 calls about graffiti in the past three months, many of them reporting tags at local businesses and parks, according police records.

After reporting to police, business owners and the Gilroy Unified School District are responsible for removing graffiti themselves, Deras said.

Outside the city limits, where there is no organized crew of volunteer tag removers, graffiti removal is one of that many things that public maintenance handles.

“Unfortunately, unless it is a big operation, we don’t keep record of tagging,” said Sheriff Sgt. Jose Cardoza.

Ben Martinez, 18-year-old Rucker Avenue resident, just north Gilroy’s city limits, said he’s seen the same tag for three months in his neighborhood. After calling the Sheriff’s Department, he was referred to county road maintenance, who have not returned his phone calls.

The thick lettering spray-painted directly on the asphalt on Rucker Avenue features a racial slur.

“(Graffiti) has really been showing up everywhere lately. I think that by ignoring what was in the middle of the road, it really showed the taggers that they can get away with it,” Martinez said.

Deras is hopeful that police will get this summer graffiti problem under control soon. Meanwhile, he encourages parents to be aware the types of doodles they find in their children’s notebooks, as well as be aware of where they are at night.  

“Often parents see it and think it’s just innocent doodling,” he said. “But sometimes it’s an indication of someone who is on a tagging team.”

If you’re interested in volunteering to clean-up graffiti, call 408-846-0525.