Faced with a rash of graffiti along Madison Street in recent weeks, Oak Park and Forest Park police are asking for citizens’ help.

Oak Park has seen numerous “taggings” of buildings on the west end of Madison Street, while Forest Park police reported some 15 graffiti incidents over the past three months, most in the 7300 to 7500 blocks of Madison. Four Forest Park businesses were spray painted last week.

“Tagging’s becoming an increasing problem all over town,” said Oak Park Police Commander Phyliss Howard. “We’re finding kids [writing] things like computer logons, some use nicknames, or other symbols or smiley faces.”

Howard said the exact number of tagging instances is hard to estimate. So far, Oak Park police have received no formal complaints from building owners. But such vandalism here has been a problem since at least last spring, when several buildings in Downtown Oak Park were hit.

River Forest Deputy Chief Dan Dooghie said his department hasn’t seen any tagging since last June, when the village experienced a spat of vandalism, including nearly a dozen defacements to the Keystone Park pavilion building. On June 12, River Forest police arrested three Oak Park teenagers for vandalism with a black marking pen to signs in the Jewel parking lot in the 7500 block of Lake Street in River Forest. One teen was charged with misdemeanor criminal damage to property, while two others were charged with criminal damage to property.

Both Howard and Forest Park Deputy Chief of Police Tom Aftanas said catching taggers is difficult, and asked that the public pick up the phone when they see suspicious behavior. Police, they say, are aware of the problem, but that’s not enough.

“It’s a difficult crime to catch in action,” Howard said. “It’s important that residents call us when they see suspicious behavior. We need their eyes and ears.”

Because tougher laws made it more difficult for juveniles to purchases spray paint, most taggers are working with small marking pens, and the surface area they vandalize is rather small. Howard said her Resident Beat Officers (RBOs) believe the vandalism is being committed by a small number of youths between the ages of 13 to 20. Several months ago Forest Park police arrested two juveniles and a 20-year-old in separate tagging incidents.

Though few in numbers, the vandals can cause a lot of damage.

“Ten or 15 kids can cover a lot of area,” said Howard.

Oak Park police arrested two Cicero youths the night of Jan. 29 for marking a business in the 6300 block of Roosevelt Road with a gang sign. They recovered two cans of spray paint and three markers from the boys. However, Oak Park Deputy Chief Bob Scianna stressed that the recent tagging incidents are distinct from gang graffiti.

“It’s apples and oranges,” he said.

Aftanas noted there’s also a distinction between the Madison Street graffiti and the tagging done on Blue and Green Line el stations.

“At [the elevated lines] you get the big, elaborate artwork,” he said. With a few exceptions, the medium of choice in recent taggings is black marking pen, though there have been a few cases of spray paint being used in Forest Park.

Howard said police are working with the Community Relations Department to ensure that all instances of graffiti are formally documented.

Most important, Howard said, was to removed any graffiti as quickly as possible. Leaving up, she said, sends the wrong message.

“We need it to come down. It’s an invitation [to other taggers],” she said.

Forest Park gives tagging victims the number of the Cook County Sheriff’s grafitti removal unit.

Oak Park residents and business owners victimized by tagging can contact either the police or the Community Relations Department to receive a free graffiti removal kit. The kit contains “Graffiti-X,” which Howard says is effective in removing some graffiti.But not all.

“It doesn’t work on all surfaces, and sometimes it removes the surface underneath [the graffiti],” Howard said.

In fact, many experts caution that the solution can be worse than the problem if not handled correctly. It’s a serious enough problem that Cook County’s grafitti unit requires property owner signs a damage waiver. Highly caustic or strong chemicals such as methylene chloride, N-Methyl-2-Pyrrolidone (NMP) or hydrocarbon solvents, they say, can do more damage than they repair. There are soybean- and corn-based products and other biodegradable materials that claim to safely remove everything from black marker to ink to enamel paint. But the key is a proper assessment of both the surface that was tagged and the material used to tag it. Porous surfaces, such as brick, are different than such surfaces as aluminum, stone or painted wood.

Tagging was such a problem in Portland, Ore., that administrators there conducted a study of 35 chemicals being used to tag buildings and assessed the pros and cons of the types of products available to remove it. A 26-page report of their findings can be found online at http://www.newdream.org/procure/Graffiti.pdf.

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