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Tag team cleans up the town

You've probably seen them at one time or another, armed with water hoses, baking soda and gallons of paint as they drive around town looking for the latest masterpieces left overnight by misdirected artists.

Occasionally, residents will mistake Tyler Layton or another member of Salt Lake City's graffiti-removal crew for a spray-paint vandal and wonder if they ought to phone in a complaint.

"We've all been reported," says Tyler, 21, "and I've even had the police drive up, thinking they're catching me in the act. When people put two and two together, though, they're always grateful. They can't thank you enough."

Most people, he says, don't realize that Salt Lake City has five full-time people on the payroll to remove obscenities and gang symbols from fences, homes, concrete walls and anything else that is tempting to a tagger looking for a clean canvas.

"If we're doing our job well," says team coordinator Janene Rae, 37, "then it looks like we don't exist. If graffiti has been up for more than three days somewhere, it's only because we don't know about it."

Because city employees aren't allowed to accept even a free cup of coffee, Janene and her crew brown-bagged it for a Free Lunch chat during a break from blasting brick walls with baking soda and painting over alley fences.

The workers want to get out the word to anyone who has awakened to find his property or somebody else's covered with black and blue spray paint. Rather than scrub that garage or picket fence yourself, call the graffiti hotline (972-7885), and the "Off the Wall" team will remove it for free.

"If your neighbors get robbed, you may hear about it, but it doesn't affect you," says Janene, who helped start the graffiti-removal program in 1993. "But graffiti on their house does affect you. You have to look at it every day, and it's psychologically upsetting. It's a reminder of the crime that is happening in the neighborhood."

Last year, she and her staff removed graffiti from more than 6,000 sites, from filthy park restrooms to posh homes in Federal Heights.

"It isn't just gangs doing this," says Garth Robinson, 26. "You have taggers in their 20s and people who leave profanity or political graffiti. The only way to discourage them is to get it removed as quick as you can."

Painting over stop signs defaced with "Stop War" or "Stop Eating Animals" is one of his team's most common assignments, along with responding to calls from the owner of the Oasis Cafe.

"A big, dark parking lot and a wide-open cement wall," says Tim Rose, 49. "It's constantly hit. They spray paint it, we remove it. Again and again."

It seems that no area is immune from taggers with something to prove. "You name it, we've been there," says Tim. But there is nothing, he says, that the crew can't remove.

A few months ago, he and Tyler climbed up an old downtown water tower to paint over graffiti that ran seven stories up.

"That's probably the worst I've seen," he says, "but the thing that really bothers me is when you see somebody's grandmother and she's frightened because her house has been tagged. When it's threatening somebody's well-being, it's a concern to all of us."

Those who are caught defacing others' property are often sentenced to spend a few days erasing their artwork with the paint-removal crew.

"That makes you feel good, to see them out there removing it," says Darrell Ames, who at 52 is the oldest on the team.

"In my day," he says, "graffiti like this didn't exist. If I'd spray-painted somebody's fence, you can bet my dad would have put an end to it in a hurry."


Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what's on your mind to freelunch@desnews.com or send a fax to 466-2851. You can also write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.