There’s something about seeing rampant tagging in a beautiful area like Isla Vista that is completely infuriating. The weekend before Christmas, I took a walk from I.V. out to Ellwood. Along the way, I saw graffiti everywhere — on the side of Isla Vista Elementary School, on a sign near the monarch butterfly preserve, on a memorial on the bluffs, all over someone’s car …
Of course, it is not unusual to see graffiti in I.V. It crops up here and there. But I had never seen that much tagging appear, seemingly overnight. Although some people call those who leave their mark this way artists, I think the term tagger or vandal is much more appropriate.
“It shows a lack of respect for the community,” said Sergeant Mark Signa of the Isla Vista Foot Patrol, who talked about the frustration both police officers and community members feel when faced with this type of vandalism. “It makes them [the taggers] feel good, and it is miserable for everyone else.”
Rodney Gould, general manager for the Isla Vista Recreation and Park District, said graffiti is found most often at the beginning of the school year, and during winter and spring breaks. He said, “We averaged about 106 incidents in each of the peak months and about 60 incidents per month the rest of the year.”
When IVRPD employees see graffiti, he said, they photograph it, log the incident, and take appropriate action. If the graffiti occurred on a street sign, sidewalk, or street, the Santa Barbara County Public Works Department is notified. If the tagging occurred on private property, a letter is sent to the owner with information regarding the county graffiti abatement ordinance. Property owners have five days to remove the graffiti or risk receiving a citation and possible fine. Gould said that the IVRPD takes care of graffiti on the bluffs, in the parks, or in the public right-of-way, which is defined at eight feet from the curb on either side of the street.
When you think tagger, you may think gang member or someone with a criminal background. This may or may not be the case. Sgt. Signa said that taggers come from different walks of life. Some are gang members, some are part of a tagging crew, and others are students. The students may be from Santa Barbara City College, UCSB, or even the local junior and high schools, he said. They may even be from out of town. Sgt. Signa said that people might come to I.V. to go to a party on Del Playa, and end up leaving their mark before heading home.
Unlike other types of criminal behavior, the perpetrator wants to be recognized. Sgt. Signa said that it is easy for law enforcement officers to identify the work of a particular individual. “It’s like a burglar signing his name and leaving a business card,” he said.
What’s not so easy is catching the taggers. While some taggers are caught in the act with spray paint can in hand, other times the task is more time-consuming. Sgt. Signa said that law enforcement officers might have to set up a stake out or make extra patrols in a particular area to catch the tagger in the act.
The IVRPD logs each tagging incident and shares reports with Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and the Santa Barbara Police Department. “We recently provided information to the county to assist in the prosecution of a tagger and to help determine the amount of his restitution,” Gould said.
If caught, a tagger could be charged with a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the monetary amount of the vandalism. Sgt. Signa, said that property damage of more than $400 is considered a felony. In addition, individuals are charged for each instance of graffiti. For example, if there signature is found 10 times, they are charged with 10 counts of vandalism. He said that the punishment for this type of crime usually involves community service and/or being forced to pay restitution.
Who Pays to Repair the Damage?
In most cases, private citizens and business owners pay the price for tagging, and it is a costly one. Gould, said “graffiti abatement in the community costs approximately $16,000 per year (not including what Santa Barbara County spends on signs, sidewalks, and the streets).” The funds come from a variety of sources. The IVRPD even has a Graffiti Remover Specialist, who is hired through the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Work Study Program administered by UCSB.
Due to the damage caused by tagging, some police departments have contracted with private businesses to track and identify taggers. A company called Graffiti Tracker is used by law enforcement in the L.A. area to document and provide database information to help identify and catch taggers. For now, however, people fighting graffiti in Isla Vista have to use more traditional methods.
Sgt. Signa said it is important for community members to report tagging and call the police if they see suspicious activity, like a person walking down the street with can of spray paint in hand. Since tagging is all about gaining notoriety, he said that graffiti abatement is key to solving the problem. “The best way to combat tagging to is clean it up as quickly as possible,” he explained. By working together, people might not be able to eliminate graffiti, but they can ensure that it doesn’t begin to mar the beauty of our community.