Incidents of graffiti in McLean and Great Falls have gone up recently. Neighborhood signs, fences and landmarks have all been targeted by spray-paint wielding vandals. The good news for residents is the type of graffiti seen locally is not the act of gangs, but rather graffiti writers known as taggers.
The latest incident of tagging appeared at Observatory Park in Great Falls just in advance of the Fourth of July celebration that took place on the grounds. Parts of the offensive language were cleaned up prior to the festivities, but the interior side of the building, not facing Springvale Road, clearly bore the stamp of tagging.
The language used in that incident was identical to the words spray-painted earlier in the year on a pillar that students at Langley High School have claimed for decades. The words were anti-police and obscene. Experts believe graffiti is the tagger's voice to the world, or a way to indirectly snub authority.
McLean police station Capt. Graham McGowen said his department has not seen many incidents of graffiti lately but they are on the lookout for it because it can signal criminal activity to come. “People need to call us so we can come out and take a look at it and see if there’s a coorelation with other graffiti in the area,” said McGowen.
Charles Olin, with the Analemma Society, which is building up Observatory Park, said this is not the first time that the buildings on the grounds have been tagged with graffiti. “They are looking for attention, and we are not going to give it to them,” said Olin.
THE ANALEMMA SOCIETY quickly cleaned up the graffiti by painting over the language with a dense paint. Experts assert that getting rid of the graffiti as soon as possible serves as a deterrent because the offenders will move on to new ground if their work is being erased.
“That’s pretty disgusting, especially in a place like this. It’s definitely not funny. There are kids and families around,” said resident Greg Jacobs, who attended the fireworks display at Turner Farm.
Fairfax County Police public information officer Jeff Hairston said that incidents of graffiti do increase slightly in the summer months, when students have more free time on their hands. “But it’s not necessarily on the rise. This is the same as it’s been over the last few years around here,” said Hairston. “It’s not too prevalent, but we get it here and there.”
While most residents view the graffiti as vandalism, the taggers see their work as art or as a mode of expression. The graffiti is an act of vandalism and carries a fine for anyone caught destroying property. “It’s normally considered destruction of property but it could be a felony depending on the value of the property,” said McGowen.
According to the National Alliance of Gang Investigator Associations (NAGIA) Web site, “In many areas, taggers are individuals from middle- and upper-income homes, whose source of entertainment comes from vandalizing public and private property with their art. Serious taggers are primarily between the ages of 18 and 22. Some taggers also belong to subcultures and wear alternative labels such as skaters (skateboarders), punks, Straight Edge (anti-drug, alcohol & tobacco), and anarchists. Taggers tend to have risk-taking personalities and may be attracted to extreme sports like skateboarding, in-line skating, and snowboarding, as well.”
Tagging graffiti is easily distinguished from gang graffiti because it is more stylized in appearance. The colors are usually brighter and the lettering is puffy. Taggers often work together, but the average size is from 3 to 10 members, according to NAGIA. Taggers will roam from place to place to put down their “art” because notoriety is generated through the number of tags created by the artist or group.
Dianne Van Volkenburg has been monitoring graffiti recently for the Great Falls Citizens Association. “As a mother and as a citizen of Great Falls, I get concerned about what it is. Some of it we know for sure is just decoration,” said Van Volkenburg. “We’re suburban, but then again we’re not,” said Van Volkenburg about the rise in what was traditionally an urban phenomenon.
Van Volkenburg is attempting to develop a committee within the GFCA that will look into the problem and develop a community-wide solution. “There’s two things I’d like to see us do. First, when we see it, we would call police immediately and let them identify what kind it is - decoration or gang activity. And then, figure out what we as a community can do it about it in the future,” said Van Volkenburg. “We need to come up with a strategy. We really don’t have one now.”
“FROM AN AESTHETIC POINT OF VIEW, it’s ugly. And this affects everyone’s home values,” said Van Volkenburg.
In tracking down graffiti in the area, she has learned that the Great Falls Woods subdivision has been targeted and is dealing with it as a group. “It’s decorative there, and they have addressed the problem. It’s on the fence that is commonly owned, so they are going to plant ivy to cover the fence and make it less noticeable,” said Van Volkenburg. “The ivy will make it so they don’t notice the wall so much and hopefully won’t think of it in the future.”
Hairston said there are several things that individuals can do to decrease their chances of being tagged. “First, people need to report it to us as soon as possible. Bright light, especially at night, is a deterrent. Illuminating the outside helps,” said Hairston.
While homeowners have some tactics to use to defend themselves against unwanted graffiti, businesses and public property, according to Hairston, have less of a chance to stop it. “On public property it’s nearly impossible to deter it,” said Hairston. The isolation of many public facilities, inadequate lighting, and the lack of a physical presence all give a tagger ample opportunity to deface buildings.
“It’s the property owners responsibility to clean it up. That can get people pretty upset because it can get pretty expensive. People can have to use things like pressure washers that can add up,” said McGowen.
There are signs that parents and other adults can look for that might indicate a youth is practicing graffiti. Taggers may keep a collection of trade items such as aerosol spray paint, surgical gloves, loose spray can caps, paint sticks, or wide-tipped markers.