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STROKE OF CREATIVITY COULD HELP PAINT GRAFFITI OUT OF THE PICTURE

SHARE STROKE OF CREATIVITY COULD HELP PAINT GRAFFITI OUT OF THE PICTURE

I suspect the rising generation may be the first in history to believe paint was developed for something other than decorating their own property. That's one of the reasons cities are having such a tough time battling the graffiti menace.

They can't outlaw the purchase of paint because so many people use it for legitimate reasons. On the other hand, they can't have police stopping three suspected gang members in a car filled with 72 cans of spray paint - as West Valley police did recently - and simply let them go. (The West Valley cops were lucky. They could arrest the three because they traced the paint and found it was stolen.)In case you've been sick in bed for several months and haven't noticed, graffiti has reached epidemic proportions along the Wasatch Front. Some of it even showed up in my normally placid neighborhood in South Jordan, although I suspect gangs out my way aren't really committed. The penmanship is neat.

The problem is especially acute in West Valley City. A recent spray-paint spree cost property owners and the city tens of thousands of dollars. The City Council decided it had to do something, so it passed two ordinances. One outlaws the possession of paint or anything else that can be used to mark property under suspicious circumstances. The other penalizes any suspicious character who refuses to divulge his or her identity to police.

Both ordinances are vague enough to give cops plenty of leeway, which could present some constitutional problems. Frankly, I'm disappointed. Other cities and states are being far more creative.

In California, a place where "graffiti art" is destined to be a recognized university major, a Republican assemblyman has introduced a bill requiring juvenile vandals to undergo up to 10 whacks with a wooden paddle - administered by a parent. This is kind of a bizarre twist to the Singaporean caning that has become so popular.

The paddle would be 18 inches long and 6 inches wide, made of 3/4-inch hardwood. The juvenile would be fully clothed, making it a notch more civilized than the bare-bottomed punishment in Singapore. A parent could, of course, refuse to administer the punishment, at which point a bailiff would take over. The bailiff also would intervene if a judge felt the parent was paddling too lightly.

But this is a rather hackneyed approach compared to the one taken recently by police in San Jose. They apparently studied graffiti vandals and discovered two traits common to all of them:

- They have an uncontrollable urge to attract attention to themselves. That is, after all, the underlying reason for spreading graffiti in the first place.

- They aren't Einsteins. Many of them may have latent intellectual potential, but it's pretty well-hidden, particularly when they hang around with their friends.

With this in mind, San Jose cops hit on a perfect scheme. According to news stories, they posed as a film crew and circulated posters that said they needed graffiti artists for a documentary. The response was overwhelming. Here was a chance to be in the movies! That meant attention from more than just the other boys in the 'hood.

Police narrowed the field to the most serious offenders by making everyone fill out a questionnaire and by having them audition on easels. They told applicants they could win a trip to Los Angeles if they were chosen for the film.

Once they had a workable group of vandals, they asked them if they had any examples of their work in the area. This is where the Einstein factor kicked in. The suspects were more than happy to show where they had struck in recent weeks, exhibiting great pride in their work. Some of them even whipped out spray cans and started new projects on blank walls, despite members of the "film crew" shouting "No!"

As they were carted to jail, The Associated Press reported one of them saying, "So does this mean I'm not going to L.A.?"

I like solutions that leave the community such a sense of satisfaction.