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Deconstructing art: Cleanup crews tackle District’s graffiti epidemic

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Everybody knows springtime in the District means blossoms and baseball. But it also means an increasingly busy schedule for the city's graffiti-removal crews, which have seen a quadrupling of cleanup orders since 2010.

While most residents are hunkering down in their homes during the cold winter months, an invisible legion — respected by some as artists and decried by others as vandals — takes to back alleys, rooftops and bridges armed with spray-paint cans, leaving a trail of signatures, symbols and scribbles across the city to be scrubbed when warm weather arrives.

Lately, the problem seems to be growing. In the past three years, the numbers of graffiti cleanups has soared — from 1,780 in 2010 to 6,155 in 2011 and 8,571 last year.

Exactly why more graffiti seems to be popping up in the city is hard to pin down, but Nancee Lyons, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Public Works, points to an increase in development.

"That means a lot more canvases for people," said Ms. Lyons, whose agency oversees the graffiti-removal crew. "A lot of these buildings replace other buildings, which make it more attractive."

Today's graffiti taggers are older teenagers and young adults, Ms. Lyons said. And, oddly enough, many of them come from the suburbs.

"There are more reasons to come into D.C. now than five years ago," she said. "There's more people traveling corridors. It's becoming more of a graffiti destination because of the economic boom."

On a recent gray morning, a three-man abatement crew pulled its trucks into a narrow alley behind a gutted U Street apartment building. On one side, large dumpsters were backed by a chain-link fence. A long wall ran parallel, segmented into brick and concrete blocks that were stained where someone had sprayed black, white and red paint in disappointingly mundane and nearly indecipherable script.

The city employs six people, including a supervisor, who remove graffiti along with two trucks for paint and a truck that removes posters illegally pasted on signs and walls.

Armed with a plastic capsule that resembled a propane tank and a hose that dispensed a heady cleaning liquid, 42-year-old Sean Thomas went to work drizzling the potent — but environmentally friendly — cleaner along the wall.

"Sometimes it's in places we can't get to. It's like, 'How did they get up there without a bucket truck?'" he said. "It's an example for the neighborhood that even if you don't own the buildings, it's showing you are in the neighborhood."

Mr. Thomas is part of the crew overseen by Ace Broadus, a tall 34-year-old man with a young face and a quiet voice. He's been removing graffiti for 10 years.

"There's so much graffiti in D.C.," he said. "It's like a wildfire. It seems like it hasn't died down."

Why so much of the city is covered in graffiti, even Mr. Broadus can't say, though he's asked the occasional "tagger" who's come out to do community service with the crew. The answers are as varied as the designs.

"A lot of them say they're expressing their artwork, some is gang related," he said.

Sometimes graffiti is used as a way to memorialize someone, such as the string of "BORF" tags in the mid-2000s, which were done by a local art student to remember a deceased friend.

The most outrageous location Mr. Broadus has seen a tag is on the backside of a sign posted high above Interstate 395 near the Southeast-Southwest Freeway. The C&O Canal in Georgetown is a popular location, which Mr. Broadus said has been painted at least 10 times in the last year.

And while the chemicals Mr. Broadus' team employs to remove paint are most effective in warmer weather, he said taggers don't hibernate in the winter.

"They put their aerosol cans on the car dashboard to stay warm," he said.

The Public Works Department gets thousands of graffiti complaints from residents and businesses. In recent years, a partnership with a local paint store allowed residents to pick up a free can of paint to restore their defiled property, but Ms. Lyons said that coupon option was not available in 2012, which could be another reason for the boost in cleanup orders.

This particular job came from the mayor's office.

"We try to have it done within 48 hours," Mr. Broadus said with a knowing smile, "but we gotta move a little faster for the mayor's office."

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