Take a look around town and the problem may not immediately jump out at you. But look closer and you begin to notice it scrawled everywhere: on city signs, walls, concrete waterways, mailboxes and businesses. It is the most common type of property damage and costs Phoenix $6 million a year to clean up.
It’s graffiti and police say it is becoming a growing issue in Payson.
Just last year, reports of graffiti were up 68 percent over 2008, and the majority of graffiti still goes unreported, said Payson officer Joni Varga.
“It is discouraging to see,” she said. “We don’t want (Payson) to turn into those other towns we have all seen.”
Tagging took off in 2006, when one 15-year-old caused more than $10,000 in damages, Varga said. Officers caught and arrested the teen, but the damage was done.
“He caused so much damage,” she said. “I never even noticed it much before that.”
The majority of graffiti found in Payson, about 90 percent, is not gang related, Varga said.
Graffiti is most commonly used by pre-teens to young adult males as a signature or way to say, “I was here.”
“There is a large group of the same kids doing it,” she said. “It is is not so much gang related, but more of an identity thing.”
Taggers mark anything with their nickname or “tag” name, including schoolbooks, notebooks and papers and because taggers have a desire to be known, they put their work in visible areas, she added.
“There are four primary motivating factors: fame, rebellion, self-expression and it is a power rush,” she said.
To combat the growing problem, the Payson Police Department started a graffiti task force in 2009 in charge of catching serial taggers and educating residents and business owners about protecting themselves.
While Payson does not deal with the number of taggers found in a metropolitan city like Phoenix, its effects are still devastating on the community.
“Graffiti is not a victimless crime,” she said.
Graffiti can lower property values, discourage new residents from moving in and hurt a business’ bottom line. Because most graffiti happens on private property, businesses must cover clean-up costs, the majority coming out of pocket because the cost is below the insurance deductible.
Under the new program, when graffiti is reported, officers take a photograph of the illegal art, document the location and add it to their database. When police arrest a suspected tagger, they can go back and pull photos of graffiti done by that person.
Graffiti is a punishable crime and considered a felony if done on churches, schools, cemeteries or utilities. It is also a federal crime to damage property belonging to the postal service.
If someone finds graffiti, Varga advises taking a picture of the graffiti, calling police and then covering it up as soon as possible.
“Clean it up within 24 hours so you’re not advertising,” she said.
“What it says if it is left is that it is acceptable to be there.”