For Harpole, the graffiti fight goes on … and on

For Harpole, the graffiti fight goes on … and on

Paul Harpole ran for Amarillo mayor in 2011 pledging – among other things – to wage a war against graffiti.

He launched that effort after winning in a landslide. He identified some of the more troublesome locations around the city and set about enacting a series of steps to clean the buildings up.

Is the city graffiti-free? Have the mayor and his team eradicated the "tagging" of buildings and the damaging of personal property? Is there an end in sight to this campaign?

The short answer is "no" to all of the above, according to Harpole.

"It's an on-going job and it will go on forever and ever," Harpole said just a few weeks after being re-elected to a third term as mayor.

He vows he won't be derailed or deterred from continuing his campaign. Harpole said he remains determined to continue the effort for as long as he is mayor and said he hopes the next mayor and all who follow will remain focused on graffiti cleanup.

"We've cleaned up more than 200 buildings," Harpole said. "When we take (the graffiti) off once, then we have to take it off a second time," he added. "After that, they usually don't return for a third time."

Harpole said the city has made seven arrests and officials have gained five convictions on charges of people damaging private property. "This is no different at all from going around and smashing out someone's car windows," he said.

An interesting aspect of the campaign, Harpole said, has been the push back against vandals from young people using the skate park at John Stiff Park. They are deterring graffiti artists from defacing the structure at the skate park where youngsters congregate to show off their skill on skateboards, he said.

The mayor estimated that the graffiti is being done by "about 35 to 40 people." Their ages vary, he said, from "about 12 to around 40, 41 years of age. Some people 'age out,' and we'll get new people doing it."

He said, "I don't think you'll ever end it."

Harpole said one measure of success has been the decrease in the number of buildings being "tagged," compared to when he first took office in 2011. 

Blair Snow, who works as a management analyst for City Manager Jarrett Atkinson, said that "the word has spread" among the individuals who've been tagging the buildings. "More people are calling in to report this activity and we want more people to call. The quicker we clean the buildings, the less likely it is that the graffiti will return."

Harpole said the city sets aside about $100,000 annually in its budget for graffiti abatement, but said "we haven't spent it all."

The Internet has been a major asset in the city's effort to find ways to combat the graffiti plague. Harpole said the city uses to access information on what other cities are doing to rid those communities of the graffiti.

The site's home page contains links to "education and outreach," enforcement of local laws, graffiti prevention and it offers a "graffiti IQ test" to those seeking to learn more about this form of "art." Harpole said the site has been a valuable resource for the city to use as it seeks its own answers to graffiti abatement.

The city's building-cleaning techniques involve mostly the use of pressurized warm water, which he said works better than some of the chemicals used in some instances. 

Some building surfaces are more troublesome than others, Harpole noted. He said one surface, which he called a "sort of fake stucco," can deteriorate more easily than other surfaces. Plus, he said, "It's harder to match the paint on that surface."

Amarillo police officers monitor the graffiti, looking for "gang symbols," according to the mayor. "Yes, some of it is gang-related," he said, noting that gangs are "tagging their territory."

Snow said Amarillo Independent School District teachers have been helpful in locating graffiti "artists" by peeking at some of the doodling in students' notebooks. "Teachers will notice symbols in the notebooks," she said, "and then they'll notify the police."

Snow also said that occasionally, the courts will sentence juvenile offenders to time in the Youth Center of the High Plains – next door to the Randall County Jail on South Georgia Street – and "order them to do community service by cleaning up the buildings" they have damaged with graffiti.

Snow said the city "tries to use the volunteer approach" to getting property cleaned up. "We talk to the property owner and ask them to clean it. Usually they're compliant."

Not all property owners, Harpole said, oppose the graffiti. He mentioned the "free wall" that borders the building occupied by Amarillo civil liberties lawyer Jeff Blackburn, who welcomes the graffiti designs. 

Harpole said the police will spot a gang symbol among some of the graffiti designs on the "free wall" and other locations. Then the police will interview suspected gang members and "get them to confess to the graffiti," the mayor said. "Often, they do. They're proud of the their work."

Snow added, though, that the city does encounter "some trouble when the property owner doesn't live here and we have difficulty finding them."

Harpole said it is difficult to measure the success of the anti-graffiti effort. "There's no end to this struggle," he said. "I guess one way to measure success is by determining how quickly we get the graffiti removed and how quickly we make arrests," he said.

He looks at another mayor of some renown and notoriety, former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani – who became known as "America's Mayor" for his response to the 9/11 attacks, and who has tackled the same issue of graffiti abatement in a city of 8 million residents. "Mayor Guiliani said you frustrate them by getting rid of the graffiti quickly," Harpole said.

That's what Amarillo – with its population of just less than 200,000 residents – is trying to do, Harpole said.

"I just hope," Harpole said, "that the city will do this forever."