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Uncover the hidden messages in graffiti

When the crime is the evidence, a web-based tool can help you investigate even after tagging or
gang graffiti is removed or painted over

Nov 5, 2018

By Laura Neitzel, PoliceOne Staff

British graffiti artist and prankster Banksy shocked the art world when his “Girl with Balloon”
moments after a patron bought it for $1.4 million at a Sotheby’s auction. What a
wanton act of destruction of something so valuable, some decried.

The irony was not lost on Timothy Kephart, the founder of Graffiti Tracker, a web-based solution
that helps identify, track, prosecute and seek restitution from graffiti vandals. Cleanup of graffiti-
based vandalism costs in excess of $12 billion annually in the U.S., according to a 2015 study by
the paint company Valspar

graffiti_01Graffiti as a form of self-expression
has been around since the invention of
writing. But while some graffiti artists
have risen to prominence in the art world,
one needs only answer a single question
to distinguish “graffiti art” from “graffiti
vandalism” – did the person creating the
work have Permission from the property
owner? Absent permission, graffiti is a crime.

guide on graffiti published by the DOJ’s
Office of Community Oriented Policing
explains that “rather than
being a senseless destruction of property,
graffiti fulfills certain psychological needs, including providing excitement and action, a sense of control
and an element of risk.” These motivations range from boredom, self-expression, prestige and
fame to defiance of authority, hostility, anger and intimidation.

Graffiti: How to take a nuisance crime, extract evidence and recoup money
Tracking graffiti one tag at a time

Fortunately for law enforcement, the psychological motivations that drive a graffiti vandal to
commit the crime also impel them to leave a trail of clues to their identity, location and
affiliations. Understanding the different motivations of each type of graffiti is critical to
understanding how to combat it.

While graffiti artists like Banksy make headlines, graffiti as artistic expression represents only a
tiny percentage of graffiti worldwide. The two most prevalent categories of graffiti vandalism are
gang graffiti and tagging graffiti.
There are two very different motivations behind the two, says Kephart, and each motivation can
be used to go investigate and reduce the problem.

The motivation behind the gang graffiti is fear and intimidation, he adds.

“They’re trying to put as much fear and intimidation to the community, to law enforcement and
to other rival gangs,” he said.

Recognizable by its block letters and general lack of artistic flourish, gang graffiti exists
primarily as a communication tool
. Gang graffiti can mark the boundaries of the gang’s claimed
jurisdiction or “turf,” be used to taunt or threaten other gangs or individuals, boast of
achievements and send coded business communications, such as the time and place of drug

Roll call graffiti is a listing of the monikers of two or more members of the same gang, along
with the gang name or symbol. Paying attention to the monikers that appear together gives law
enforcement clues about the identities of gang members and their cliques.

“You get an idea of which gang members are friends that hang out and spend time with one
another,” said Kephart. “So, if one of them gets involved in a shooting and there was another
person with them, it might help narrow down the list of suspects because these two have put their
graffiti up 10 or 15 times over the last month.”

Monikers can also indicate to police when there is an escalation of violence. An X crossing out a
moniker means that gang member is targeted for murder or an attack. Wings on a moniker are a
tribute to a slain gang member and may be a clue to law enforcement that rival gangs will be
seeking revenge.

Tagging graffiti represents about 80 percent of all graffiti worldwide. The motivation behind
tagging graffiti – often more stylized and colorful – is for fame and notoriety. The more difficult
the location of the tag, the more notoriety for the tagger.

“Some kid – let’s say your average 13, 14-year-old kid that does this, he adopts a nickname,” said
Kephart. “Say it’s Lungs. He’s going to go and write Lungs everywhere. He’s going to be known
by it. His friends are going to call him Lungs. His social media accounts are going to reference
the name Lungs. That’s become his new identity, so he’s going to put that in as many locations as
possible and brag about it.”

Because recognition is important, the tagger tends to express the same motif – the graffiti’s style
and content are replicated over and over again, becoming the tagger’s unique signature. As the
tagger builds his portfolio, law enforcement gains more evidence.

Graffiti vandalism is a unique crime in that the very motivations for self-expression, notoriety
and fame that lead graffiti artists and vandals to create graffiti are also weaknesses that can be
exploited by law enforcement to identify, apprehend and bring them to justice. In essence, it’s the
only crime where the evidence is the crime and the crime is the evidence.

Depriving gang members and taggers of the visibility of their graffiti – and thus their notoriety –
has been shown to be effective in reducing graffiti incidents. That’s why most communities
follow a policy of painting over or removing graffiti as soon as possible after the incident is

Unfortunately, in their haste to remove the graffiti, many communities are inadvertently
destroying evidence that can help law enforcement build a case.

With Graffiti Tracker, police can within moments easily record photographic evidence of the
graffiti, noting its location and other details that can provide crucial information about the
tagger’s identity and tie them to other graffiti incidents. The information then goes into Graffiti
Tracker’s web-based system, where it is analyzed for hidden messages that might tip off police to

an escalation of gang violence, for instance.
Graffiti Tracker also records evidence that allows law enforcement to track activity, trace it to a
specific tagger and build a case for prosecution that can result in arrest and restitution. Not only
does this benefit the community by reimbursing some of the costs of graffiti abatement, the
intervention can keep a young graffiti vandal from a life of crime.

“What better way to identify them than such a low-level crime where you can get the restitution
back and impact the child at a young age to hopefully steer them on the right path,” said Kephart,
who has personally steered several young vandals toward a more productive future. “The kid
also stops putting the graffiti up that can be used to prosecute him and gain restitution or, even
better, prevent him from joining a gang or furthering a criminal career. It’s a win-win in every
single way.”