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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, July 16, 2006

Fast paintouts latest tactic in graffiti war

By Rod Ohira
Advertiser Central O'ahu Writer

Doreen Ann Piris observes what appears to be a graffiti battleground on Mahoe Street in Waipahu. Walls have been painted over and graffiti has been redrawn.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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The "zebra" paintout strategy, seen here on H-1 Freeway near Mo'ili'ili, only partially paints over graffiti to discourage more vandalism.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Quick-response paintouts are an effective deterrent that has turned the islandwide war on graffiti into what one graffiti buster calls a battle of wills.

"We not giving up," Joe Hunkin, senior pastor of Lighthouse Outreach Center in Waipahu, said of the graffiti busting his church does regularly as part of its "bless a block" ministry to keep Waipahu clean.

By employing the successful quick-paintout strategy adopted by Waikele Community Association's Taking Action Against Graffiti, or TAAG Team, graffiti busters from Lighthouse Outreach have kept graffiti in check along Farrington Highway and Waipahu Street.

But the battle to keep highly visible walls clean is far from over as indicated by the response, "we're not going to stop," to a recent quick-paintout job on Magellan Avenue in Punchbowl.

"It's a cat-and-mouse game," said Guy DeMello, a District 3 (Pearl City-Waipahu) police lieutenant who has seen a growing change in public awareness and concern toward graffiti in the past three years.

"Three years ago, we had one or two from the community at neighborhood board meetings who were vocal about it," he said.

"We saw what was happening, and we hatched our own paintouts as part of our Community Area of Responsibility program. My take then was these guys were (tagging) in our face because they would come back after we did a paintout. It's no longer a few guys who are vocal. People are calling 911 to report graffiti because they're aware of it and not tolerating it. They've banned together in communities and are demanding arrests."

Police and lawmakers have responded to the public's concerns.

"It's a misdemeanor, but we recognize it's a quality-of-life issue and are giving it more emphasis with plainclothes and undercover projects," said District 1 (metropolitan Honolulu) police Maj. Randy Macadangdang.

In 2005, police investigated 1,111 graffiti-related complaints that resulted in arrests for a total of 227 counts, Macadangdang said. The number of suspects arrested for those counts, however, are not part of the record-keeping, he added.

The 2006 numbers through June reflect 753 complaints and 127 counts, Macadangdang said.

The highest complaint numbers this year are from District 3 (Pearl City-Waipahu); District 5 (Kalihi); and District 4 (Kane'ohe-Kailua-Kahuku), all areas with a high number of freeway or highway walls and viaducts.

In 2005, the Legislature passed a law specific to graffiti, separating it from criminal property damage.

A move to make graffiti a felony this year failed, but state Rep. Blake Oshiro, D-33rd (Halawa, 'Aiea, Pearlridge), plans to hold an informational briefing on graffiti in August with law enforcement and lawmakers to explore sentencing reforms on the issue.

"In light of this ongoing problem," Oshiro said, "we as legislators are exploring various sentencing reforms ... such as personal liability for damage and mandatory community service."

DeMello supports mandatory minimum fines and community service as a penalty as opposed to jail time.

"I believe you have to think out of the box, be creative," DeMello said. "If someone is convicted, mandatory community service has got to be directed at the graffiti the guy is being convicted for. He should not only have to paint out the wall (he defaced), he should be given the responsibility of keeping that wall clear of any graffiti during his community service time."

With awareness has come a better understanding of who the taggers are and why they're doing it.

"It's not gang-related, it's related more to being recognized for getting away with something," Macadangdang said.

Perceptions of who's doing graffiti have changed dramatically. Three years ago, it was commonly viewed as a "harmless kids' crime." Today, the public is aware that it could be anyone from a student to a businessman.

On June 18, DeMello's alertness led to the arrest of 28-year-old Army Sgt. Bryceson Neussee, who has been charged with fourth-degree criminal property damage for allegedly spray painting the Ka Uka Boulevard overpass.

DeMello was driving home on H-2 Freeway from a special-duty assignment when he noticed that a wall that was clean three hours earlier had been tagged. Although he was off duty, DeMello took the Ka Uka offramp to check out the scene and saw four people running across the street. He notified police.

While waiting for an officer to arrive, DeMello said he saw a man spray painting the overpass. He identified Neussee to the arresting officer.

"It's a subculture where the more you get your name out, the more notorious you become," DeMello said of taggers. "They converse online, send their latest graffiti online. The weirder the place, the better. What they want is for people to wonder, how'd they do that?"

Volunteers doing quick paintouts are not only performing a service but are saving people money.

Malcolm Ching, general manager of the Waikele Community Association, which represents 2,937 homeowners, said the association was paying $500 to contractors to paint out graffiti whenever it appeared on perimeter fences before organizing its TAAG volunteer group in April 2004.

"With TAAG, we attacked them the same way they were attacking us," Ching said. "It was a different approach."

The most active TAAG Team volunteers are Cy Nishihira, Ana Gavrila, Grace and Ken Kajihiro, Mel Morita, Noemar and Susan Viloria, Roger Schlagheck, Tara Anuskewicz, Zoe Woolston and Erlinda Chong, Ching said.

"The best deterrent is to strike as fast as they do to wipe away the attention they want," Nishihira said. The TAAG group alerts each other of new graffiti so they can react quickly.

"It's an ongoing battle and I don't think the problem will really go away," Nishihira said. "But we've cut down our graffiti by 95 to 98 percent in the last couple of years."

The association provides the volunteers with gift certificates from money being saved by not hiring private contractors, Ching said.

Waipahu High student Rambo Malepeai, 17, is among Lighthouse Outreach's regular graffiti busters.

"I know people who do graffiti, so I know they do it to show off," Malepeai said. "You can tell them to stop, but they won't. You just have to show them you want it to stop. I wish that if they get caught, they make them do paintouts."

Some of the ministry's graffiti busters are 11 years old. "We want to teach the little guys now how to take care of the environment and community around us now," Hunkin said.

Scott Naleimaile of the state Highways Division said about 350 people volunteer regularly to do paintouts, which he estimates saves the state thousands of manpower hours annually.

"They've made a big-time difference and put a dent in graffiti," Naleimaile said. The state provides volunteers with paint, gloves, brushes and an Adopta-Highway T-shirt. They do paintouts on secondary roads, not highways.

About two months ago, the state introduced a new strategy called "zebra" to the graffiti battle.

"We paint on a big W with gray paint (onto graffiti) rather than paint it out so we don't give the artist a clean slate to work on," Naleimaile said. "If they want to do it again, they have to clean it off themselves."

State workers return later to paint out the "zebra" and graffiti, Naleimaile said.

Reach Rod Ohira at rohira@honoluluadvertiser.com.