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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, October 29, 2006

O‘ahu turns focus to combatting graffiti

StoryChat: Comment on this story

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer

Pillars supporting the H-1 Freeway on Nimitz Highway show paint scars.

RICHARD AMBO | The Honolulu Advertiser

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They seem to be everywhere: huge, ugly and sometimes gang-related spray-painted tags on public walls, private buildings, park benches — wherever there’s a flat surface. The problem persists despite many efforts to control it, so we’re launching a campaign to help erase the blight. But we need your help. Visit honoluluadvertiser.com/localnews and tell us where you see graffiti and what you think can be done about it. We will compile what you report and publish a list of vandalized areas. When you find that scrawl has been cleaned up, we’ll report that, too, and credit those who are combating the problem.

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Longtime volunteer Bill Paul of Niu Valley covers up some graffiti on a utility box on Lunalilo Home Road.

REBECCA BREYER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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A pay telephone on North King Street is covered in graffiti.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Even trees in suburban areas are targets of graffiti. Scott Naleimaile, with the Transportation Department, says graffiti is spreading farther into the private sector.

Photo courtesy Rida Cabanilla

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KANE'OHE — Across O'ahu, graffiti not only scars the landscape but costs taxpayers, businesses and residents hundreds of thousands of dollars to wipe out or to replace damaged property.

Spray-painted scribblings and drawings deface highways and drainage canals, private buildings and public schools, signs and utility poles and even a grove of monkey pod trees along Fort Weaver Road.

It persists despite ongoing efforts by police, courts and various groups. While the costs of tackling the vandalism mount, it is now prompting discussions about deterrents ranging from installing motion cameras to opening a graffiti park where taggers can express themselves within the law.

Although many believe graffiti vandals are from a range of backgrounds and ages, young people are largely seen as the culprits.

"If they do not know the difference between right and wrong at their age, the future doesn't look bright for them," said Toby Allen, who lives in the Waikiki-Ala Moana area and purchases supplies out of his own pocket to paint over graffiti in his neighborhood.

The retired hotel/resort general manager says he has been working to clean up graffiti in various cities he's lived in for more than 20 years, and has harsh words for those who use graffiti as their means of expression.


Taggers, he says, are selfish cowards who work in the dark of night.

But Ron Artis, known for his murals on walls, buildings and schools all over O'ahu, defended some taggers as would-be artists who could benefit from the opportunity to develop artistic skills, showcase and even sell their work.

"In the dark world of graffiti you might have 40 people that say, 'Wow, you're good,'" he said. "But if you can pull him into the light, there are 40 million people to say you're good. So, you have to find a way to show this young man how to come into the light."

Utility companies and city and state agencies describe the problem as pervasive and seemingly unending as hundreds of workers and volunteers routinely wipe clean the landscape only to see the blight return, sometimes hours later.

"It gives a shabbiness to the neighborhood or the location where it's at," said Larry Leopardi, chief of the city's Road Maintenance Division. "It's across all economic and social groups. It's worse in some areas, but you'll see it everywhere."


The city addresses the problem with volunteers and its Adopt-A-Block and Adopt-A-Stream programs, Leopardi said.

His division also operates a program through which injured workers returning to the workplace are assigned light-duty tasks, such as painting over graffiti. The street sign crew also removes graffiti and replaces ruined signs, which can cost up to $150 each.

Leopardi couldn't say how much the city spends on abatement, but noted that in addition to covering costs associated with graffiti-related crew work and programs, it provides paint for cleanup volunteers.

The state provides some 400 volunteers with paint, brushes and gloves, said Scott Naleimaile, with the state Department of Transportation. While volunteers aren't permitted on freeways or in drainage canals where pollution can be an issue, they assist with other cleanups along transportation corridors. Naleimaile said he did not know the cost of the supplies but noted that the state spends about $450 each time it sends a crew to paint over an area that's 10 feet by 10 feet.

Graffiti is also destroying overhead green freeway signs that cost about $20,000 each, Naleimaile said. About 20 were replaced last year because of graffiti damage.

Naleimaile said there's evidence that graffiti is spreading farther into the private sector. "In Mapunapuna, most all of the buildings have been tagged," he said. "They climb up on the roof and tag the walls."

Hawaiian Electric Co. Inc. officials estimate that the utility spends $6,000 to $7,000 a month on graffiti cleanup. Transformers and vaults are heavily damaged everywhere, but in Salt Lake, Pearl Harbor and Nimitz Highway areas, steel poles take the brunt of the hits, said Jose Dizon, HECO spokesman.

"The most problem areas are from Kaka'ako to Wai'anae," Dizon said. "The heaviest hit are Kapolei, Makakilo, 'Ewa Beach and Waipahu."

Time spent on abatement takes workers away from other duties, Dizon said, pointing out that a three-man crew will erase, touch-up or paint an average of 100 to 120 transformers a month and some of them are repeat work.

The Board of Water Supply is also losing man-hours to graffiti that turns up on water reservoirs and pump stations throughout O'ahu, said Su Shin, BWS spokeswoman. The agency spends about $300 to clean up a site, and spent $3,000 in cleanup material alone during the 2005-2006 fiscal year, Shin said.

"Every call we receive to paint over graffiti, there is a job such as fire-hydrant maintenance and grounds maintenance we have to delay," Shin said.


Shin said the public could help by calling 911 when they see people painting graffiti. "What we really need and what we want is for people to call it in and report it as it's happening because then the cops can come and we can press charges."

In 2005, the Honolulu Police Department investigated 1,111 graffiti cases and made 227 arrests. This month, police said they had opened 1,145 cases and made 228 arrests this year.

The Legislature last year passed a law specific to graffiti, separating it from criminal property damage. Under the measure, taggers convicted of graffiti vandalism three times within a five-year period can face jail time and a $2,000 fine. The charges depend on the cost of refacing the graffiti-damaged site.

But volunteers, some of whom go out almost daily to paint over graffiti, assert more must be done.

"The answer to this is education No. 1 and, No. 2, severe penalties," said Bill Paul, who has been painting out graffiti for two years. "Not incarceration but charging them ... make them pay ... so they know if they're caught they're going to answer for it."

Lance Arakawa, who also organizes graffiti paintouts, agreed and suggested that parents of taggers pay for damage by minors.

"Or you can make like the olden days on the Mainland — work crews for nonviolent offenders," Arakawa said. "You make them work every Sunday, Saturday ... weed-whack, pick up rubbish on the road. It would save the city and state money."

Some state lawmakers are considering various ideas to present to the Legislature.

Rep. Rida Cabanilla said she'd like to see graffiti addressed in classrooms. Graffiti-related education could include student discussion of penalties and environmental impact, Cabanilla said.

"They need to know what's the consequences."

Graffiti park, cameras?

Cabanilla suggested identification be required when purchasing spray paint, and the establishment of a graffiti park. The ID requirement could also limit the number of cans sold to individuals, and parents could be required to purchase paint for underage children, she said.

The park would serve as a place where the state could set up a canvas for people to express themselves. Noting that a park project has reportedly reduced problems in Canada, she said, "at least it's contained in one place."

City Councilman Charles Djou proposed a similar project, but also suggested stepping up enforcement efforts with mobile cameras and a graffiti bounty for individuals who identify painters or their work.

Djou said the city expects to soon obtain a test camera. He said the bounty would be similar to what's done with CrimeStoppers, but it would not require an arrest and conviction for the tipster to collect money. The purpose of the bounty would be to build a portfolio about offenders and their vandalism, he said.

"You have to take a more creative approach. You have to look at some of these creative things like graffiti walls, like motion cameras, like a graffiti bounty to really attack the graffiti problem."

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com.