Reports of graffiti in Oak Park have more than tripled in the past three years.

The village had 76 incidents in 2005, the year Cedric Melton took over as director of community relations. In 2006, the number jumped to 179 and then to 246 in 2007. The village could not provide earlier numbers by presstime.

Melton isn’t sure why incidents have increased so much, but insists the change is not gang-related.

“I’m sure there was tagging before,” Melton said of the period before 2005, “but it wasn’t as prevalent as now. It’s very popular among young teens; it’s a communication form.”

Oak Park is reacting by crafting its own graffiti ordinance, scheduled for adoption in June. Some of the changes include banning the sale of graffiti products to minors, requiring property owners to remove graffiti within three days, and disallowing the paints near such public properties as schools and parks.

Melton said most reports come from Oak Park’s graffiti hotline, while others are from the police department and e-mail complaints.

The village believes young teens are doing the tagging, as a hobby and public art form.

“Images and words mean something to people in that subculture,” Melton said.

Officials want to aggressively target graffiti around the village because, they believe, the longer the paint stays on walls, the more taggers think Oak Park is a welcoming place to do it.

Melton says the village has a variety of tools to battle graffiti, even before it adopts the ordinance: from the 24-hour hotline for residents to report tagging (708/358-5429), to having the Cook County Sheriff come here twice a year to remove paint from private homes and businesses.

To remove graffiti, Oak Park offers a free soy-powered, environmentally friendly solution. For Melton, the most important tool in battling tagging is prompt and accurate reporting from residents, so people know exactly where to locate and remove graffiti.

“If it stays too long, it sends the message that it’s not being treated,” he said. “Timely removal is the key.”

Another way to curtail the problem is limiting access to paints. That’s why Oak Park is requiring shop owners to either keep graffiti products in plain sight of the counter or keep them locked and stashed away.

Oak Park resident Luis Godinez owns Montana Shop and Gallery on Harrison Street, which sells spray paint and other products that could be used for graffiti. Montana has been open for just about a year, but Godinez said his shop already cards minors and keeps paints behind the counter.

“As a business owner, you’re responsible for the way you run your business,” he said. “You follow [the rules], and you move on. What can you do? If you have a problem, maybe it’s because you’re doing something bad.”

CONTACT: mstempniak@wjinc.com

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