When gang investigator Claudio Saa, working out of Herndon for the Northern Virginia Regional Gang Task Force, reports to a call for graffiti, he can tell whether it’s gang graffiti or a basic case of vandalism with complete accuracy nine out of 10 times.
"We call graffiti the newspaper of the streets," Saa said. "In particular gang graffiti, it’s a way for the gang members to communicate with each other, to show that they operate in that neighborhood."
After receiving a call for graffiti, Saa and his fellow investigators, who operate throughout Arlington, Fairfax and Loudoun counties, will record what they see, and if it’s gang-related, make note of what the perpetrator stated and to what gang it belonged to so it can be entered into records for further police use.
This goes for all types of graffiti related to gangs, Saa added, including etchings on school desks and public bathroom walls.
After being logged, Saa and his investigators will see if they can recognize a pattern to be used if an individual matching certain characteristics is picked up.
When it comes to graffiti that is done in more of an artistic endeavor that aims to broadcast a name, it is referred to as "tagging."
"Tagging, most of the time, is just individuals who go out there and do it to glorify themselves," Saa said. "It’s a way of trying to put their name out and say, ‘look what I can do.’"
As soon as it’s logged, the number one objective becomes swift removal of the graffiti to avoid encouraging other would-be artists.
WHILE ALL GRAFFITI is registered and treated the same way at a basic level, it is the gang graffiti that generates the most serious attention.
Herndon averages about two to three reports of graffiti each week, classified technically as destruction of property, according to Lt. Don Amos of the Herndon Police Department. The type of graffiti is typically split evenly between gang-related and basic vandalism, Saa said.
The notion that all graffiti originates from gangs is not correct, he added. In fact, the frequency of graffiti, particularly that of gang graffiti, has dramatically declined in Herndon from recent years, according to Saa.
"I’ve been doing gang investigations for seven years now, and I can tell you that Herndon has gotten a lot better than how it used to be," he said. "That being said, if you’ve ever seen Los Angeles, Herndon’s got absolutely no problem at all."
FOR HERNDON-AREA RESIDENT Arielle Masters, the largest problem with the graffiti is the eye-sore that it creates throughout the area.
"I’ve lived here in the area most of my life, and I hadn’t really noticed the graffiti as much until recently, but every time I look, I seem to see graffiti where I saw none before," Masters said, pointing out that she mostly notices it along stretches of Fairfax County roads. "And as soon as that disappears I see more that pops up."
"THE BROKEN WINDOWS Theory" is a belief that if one window is left broken in a building, the longer it is left unrepaired, more will begin to surround it until the entire area has been consumed, according to Saa.
It is for that reason that resident participation in the battle against graffiti is so important, Saa said.
After an incident is logged, the resident or business is asked to clean it up as soon as possible if it is on private property, and the town works quickly to clean it up if it is on public property. If a private owner fails to clean up the graffiti in a timely fashion, the Town of Herndon sends maintenance crews to clean it up and bills the resident. This is usually done if the graffiti is more than a couple weeks old, Saa said.
"The bottom line is, if we get too much of this and nobody is saying or doing anything about it, it could only get worse," he said. "The community for the most part are our eyes and ears, we’re on foot and on the streets but we can only cover so much ground … there’s no way we can combat this without their help."
While graffiti, just like drugs or crime, will never go away entirely, community support is imperative in minimizing its effects, he added.
Masters reiterated his call to action.
"It would be nice to see more of the residents working together so we can get rid of a lot of this before even more of it pops up," Masters said. "We all need to work together to make sure that we can get rid of this problem as much as possible."