Not a day goes by in Pleasanton that someone doesn't discover graffiti scribed on a freeway underpass, stop sign, railroad boxcar or the side of a building. This city has nowhere near the amount of tags as San Jose or Oakland, but did you know that last calendar year, Pleasanton spent $50,000 covering up graffiti?
The markings are the work of what Chris Rizzoli describes as "gangs and wannabe gangs." Rizzoli is supervisor at the city support services department, which handles everything from sign installation to curb painting on city streets. Graffiti can sometimes be a full-time job.
The city has a 48-hour policy on tagging: meaning crews will try in earnest to remove it in two days or less. And almost all of the time, they succeed.
Residents may or may not believe these spray-painted markings are really a nuisance in town. It's not uncommon for the city to clean up graffiti before much of the public has seen it.
"It's hopefully seamless, so it's gone before people even notice it," Rizzoli said.
There's a system in place for tackling the vandalism and it includes teamwork between the city streets crew, the Pleasanton Police Department and sometimes, the city's code enforcement team. It typically starts with the Graffiti Hotline--phone number 931-5245. Residents can leave messages detailing the time and a detailed location of the markings. The messages are checked at the police department, where reports are generated. The reports go out to different agencies depending on where the vandalism occurred.
On a building? It goes to the city facilities maintenance crew, where any of 10 people can be called for the cleanup. On street signs, bridges or freeway overpasses? It goes to the city sign and marketing division, which has a crew of five people who can respond. On park play structures? The city's parks and community services department is dispatched. On businesses? In the case of private property, such as buildings owned by businesses, the reports are forwarded to each property owner, who is held responsible for cleaning it up. The city will also forward reports on other private property owned by the railroad, homeowners' associations and Zone 7 Water Agency. Jurisdictional issues are sometimes why people may see taggings linger longer than usual. Any graffiti on school property is handled by the Pleasanton Unified School District's maintenance department.
Shannon Revel, a community services officer in the police department's crime prevention office, said private property owners are required to eradicate the graffiti within 10 days, unless they are granted a hardship.
Police chronicle every step in the process. They take pictures of the markings and keep a running log, paying special attention to similar markings that contain monikers of group or gang names. That's how police were recently able to nab a young man for a number of tags, which shall remain nameless so as not to encourage the "artists" who often graffiti for recognition as a way to mark their territory. But even when someone is implicated in the vandalism, cases can take months to play out in the court system and it's uncommon for ones with low damage estimates to ever be prosecuted on the county level.
There is no general trend to graffiti in Pleasanton. It seems to ebb and flow and is usually done by a small handful of people at a time who are believed to be local, making it more manageable for city staff which outnumbers them, Rizzoli said.
"We do graffiti abatement every night," Rizzoli said. "Not a day goes by that graffiti isn't made. People don't realize what a big problem it is. We're fortunate that we're not like Stockton, though."
The hotline system appears to be effective, mainly because many residents are vigilant about reporting it.
"There's a core group of people, I'd say 150-200 people who are walkers, joggers, runners who are out and about and often see it and then they call the hotline from their cell phones," Rizzoli said.
There isn't likely to be a prominent sign, freeway soundwall, fence on a major thoroughfare or public restroom that's gone unscathed. Everything from the Welcome to Pleasanton sign, stop signs, speed limit signs, locations up and down Hopyard, Santa Rita and Valley avenues have been hit. A couple weeks ago, someone threw silver paint on the side of buildings at the Pleasanton Tennis Complex.
Last Friday, city crews covered up markings along the Alamo Canal Trail which parallels I-680, a popular tagging spot. Caltrans is responsible for graffiti that's done less than 250 feet from on- and off-ramps.
Though masking vandalism comes at the expense of taxpayer dollars, the city has worked to reduce the cost. Last year, Pleasanton began using reclaimed paint--paint that's been reformulated solely for graffiti abatement.
"That's saved us a great deal of money," Rizzoli said. "We have a dozen different paint colors that we use to match to the area we're covering."
The paint is purchased from companies who have leftovers that were either the wrong mix or they had extra of a particular type. So, instead of paying $130 for five gallons of regular paint, the city is able to purchase the same amount of reclaimed paint for $35.
While paint is usually the cover-up tool of choice, there are many other forms of graffiti abatement. When the new public restrooms on First Street downtown are hit, for example, sprays, chemicals and "goos" are used to remove writing made out of permanent marker. There are also special products that are used on hard surfaces such as stone. Crew members carry a kit at all times.
The city works with other agencies and cities on a graffiti task force, where ideas, tips and reports are shared.
Covering it up time and time again is not a lost cause, Rizzoli said, adding that the alternative of doing nothing would be worse.
"We do the abatement multiple times in the same places and they'll eventually give up," he said. "They're looking for canvasses with a great big view so a lot of people can see it. It's a mark of pride for them, but there are more of us than them, and we'll eventually win."
When people think of graffiti, they think spray paint defacing, but Revel said there are also many other forms.
"Graffiti is definitely evolving," she said. "It's also scratching on acrylics and glass or flap tagging with stickers, which you'll see on stop signs, benches, bus stops."
Revel said one thing the community can do besides calling the hotline is to watch out for warning signs of a potential graffiti artist. Parents, especially, she said, should pay attention.
"A lot of times, we kind of turn our cheek when we see paint on their hands or marker on their hands," Revel said. "If you're seeing them tag their notebooks, their backpacks, look into that type of stuff. People should understand that they're on the hook for what their kids do as juveniles--that they could very well become financially responsible for any destruction their child imposes."