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“Most of them look at it as a game”

By Mark Davis - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Graffiti taggers, know this: Your noms de plume — OK, your tags — won’t be mentioned in this story for all to see. In your parlance, that’s too much “ups” — credibility, that is. Brad Etterle doesn’t want you thinking you’re that big a deal.

No, he’d rather you keep doing what you do — spray-painting your tag on this abutment, applying a stylized image on that wall — unaware that he’s watching. And then, maybe, one day you’ll get a call, a knock on the door …

… and you can become the latest statistic in Atlanta’s campaign against graffiti.

It’s called, in typical bureaucratic ponderous prose, “graffiti abatement.” Etterle is the Atlanta Police Department’s graffiti abatement officer, a graffiti cop.

He’s the skinny guy in the silver Ford Taurus cruising back lots and tunnels. If it weren’t for that big handgun on his hip, you’d think he was scouting out the next great condo site. But he has eyes for other things.

On a recent morning, cool and gray as fresh cement, Etterle was in his office on the fourth floor of the Atlanta Public Safety Headquarters. A series of photos flicked by on his computer screen. The tags adorned Dumpsters, warehouse walls, sidewalks, signs. They appeared on public buildings and private homes. Some looked pretty good. Others resembled the work of a monkey set loose with a can of Rust-Oleum.

“It’s not up to me to decide what’s art,” said Etterle, 30. “My job is to enforce the law.”

To date, he’s taken more than 1,800 photos. They’re loaded into his computer and shared with Graffiti Tracker, a program that categorizes and helps locate tags across the city and nation. Atlanta is paying the company that developed the program $15,000 this year for its services, which includes cross-referencing Atlanta’s images with those submitted by other police departments across the country.

The law takes a dim view of graffiti. The convicted perpetrator may wind up as a miscreant or felon, depending on what he (and nearly all graffiti vandals are males, often between 20 and 40) paints, where, and how much it costs to remove. If it costs less than $500 to eradicate, most offenders are looking at a misdemeanor. Anything above that is classified as a felony. Spray-paint hate slogans, and things can get serious.

Etterle’s circuits often take him to East Atlanta and Little Five Points, where graffiti-ists are at their worst — or, depending on your viewpoint, their best.

“I think most of them look at it as a game,” said Etterle. “They know that (arrest) is part of the game.”

Two years ago Atlanta’s first graffiti cop swore out warrants against seven high-profile offenders. Most were fined and ordered to perform community service, scrubbing walls adorned with graffiti.

Etterle, who took over the job in 2012, has built cases against 12. There was Zachary Kahn of Decatur. He put his tag all over the place. For his efforts, Kahn got 400 hours of community service and had to pay restitution.

Then there was the tagger known to his mom and dad as Oliver Roberts. Also a Decatur resident, he did most of his work on DeKalb Avenue and in Castleberry Hill.

What compels them? Etterle doesn’t waste much time trying to get into their heads.

“I guess they do it for recognition.”

Art? Vandalism?

Serena was mad. She found a spot where passersby could read all about it. “Serena hates Isidorus,” she wrote.

Those words still adorn a wall in Pompeii, the Roman city buried under volcanic ash two millennia ago. The missive is one of hundreds researchers have discovered in the ancient ruins.

Serena’s graffiti underscores a fact: People have been scrawling on walls forever. Troops in World War II frequently drew “Kilroy,” a big-nosed guy peeping over a fence. In the 1960s, painted peace signs flowered wherever flower people gathered.

And, wherever it appears, graffiti has begged the question: Is it art or vandalism?

Etterle’s boss, Maj. V.S. Dalton, commander of the department’s Community Oriented Policing Section, has a quick answer: “If it’s painted on someone’s property without permission, we see it as vandalism.”

Ask Cheryl Kelly, co-owner of Kelly Clutch Co. near Grant Park. Her surveillance camera caught Roberts painting on the company’s sign.

“How would he feel if I went to his parents’ house and defaced their property?” she asked.

Atlanta artist Corey Barksdale, who’s been commissioned to do murals in Atlanta and Athens, believes “graffiti” is a term that encompasses good art as well as bad.

“I think ‘graffiti’ is a word people use to describe one element of society from another,” he said. Some graffiti, he said, “is nearly as good as some of the peices you see in major galleries.”

On patrol

The Ford bumped east on Hill Street, its city-worn shocks thudding over the bumpy pavement. Etterle looked left, right. It’s an occupational hazard.

“I was in Madrid last year,” he said, “and coming in from the airport, I saw all this graffiti on walls.”

He headed toward Turner Stadium. A block from the ballfield, Etterle slowed, pointing at a series of looping, fat letters. “That’s a pretty prevalent tag.” A newcomer, he said.

Any idea who it is? “Uh-uh.”

Down to Hill Street, a right turn. Etterle stopped at a fence displaying a faded tag put there by someone he later nabbed. He couldn’t keep a note of triumph out of his voice as he read it aloud.

The Ford crawled a steep drive in Summerhill and stopped at a disused city tract, once a depot and storage area. Now it is a broad expanse of sun-cracked blacktop and a few scorched buildings, a “chill spot” where taggers work with little fear of discovery.

Etterle aimed his camera at a wall where an array of tags shared space. Click. The tags would enter his database when Etterle got back to the station.

The Ford went back the way it came. From the corner of a battered brick building, a red skull with a cigar in its mouth watched it leave.

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