In the last few days it was very disheartening for me to see Alderman Burke and Alderman O'Shea try and water down Chicago's ban on Spray paint. After almost 23 years it seems the good Alderman are suddenly worried about the profits of Ace Hardware and True Value Hardware. I can tell you that those profits will dwarf what the taxpayers will pay out if they have their way. My advice to them would be to recall the words of another Burke, "Edmund" who stated, "those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." Unless of course there is something else afoot, after all, it is Chicago. Like the commercial, I know a thing or two, and one is graffiti.Here is a little history.
"Sometimes in life you just fall into things you had no intention of doing. I was assigned to supervise a Chicago Police undercover unit that was targeting chain snatchers and strong armed robberies. The City in the 80s was undergoing an epidemic of both crimes. Most were being perpetrated on the City's transportation system by thugs who found it easy to strike and escape.
While this was going on, I began to notice something else, (of course you would have to be blind not to notice.) The CTA property, both stations and rolling stock (busses and el trains) were dripping with Graffiti. Taggers, as we learned they were called, favored the CTA because of the many travelers in and out of the system on a daily basis. They especially liked the El Trains, because they moved through the city from one end to another. May as well have the biggest audience you can get.
About 99% of the folks looking at the 'Tags' could not make hide or hair of what the hell it all meant. I began to notice something else that was curious. Nobody in power, or even commuters themselves, seemed to know what to do about it. They were in agreement that it was an ugly blight, but other than that, that was it. After about a year of this the CTA started making noise about the expense of clean up. CTA Chairman Robert Bellcaster was on record saying it was costing millions to keep up with the damage. Enough said, I decided on my own to find out as much as I could about the offenders themselves.
Suddenly I found myself immersed in a culture that was as foreign as being on another planet. In 1983 "Style Wars" was an American documentary film on the hip hop culture and it's American roots. It's focus was on New York City's Graffiti Artists. An entire generation suddenly burst upon the New York scene with graffiti virtually covering every subway car in New York. It didn't take long for that fever to hit Chicago.
Soon we were seeing tags on Chicago's transit system. It was obvious by the tags these were individuals and assorted bombing crews who were extremely active throughout the entire system. The most prominent were ,CAB (creative artistic bombers),Vandal (a single tagger), ABC,(artistic bombing crew) CAB,(Chicago and beyond) Sneaky (a single tagger) NBC,(never been caught) and many others that would fill an entire book.
I talked to the Police Command and the CTA Executives and asked for a small detail to try and get the damage under control. Informants are a very big part of a Cops life in a big City. I knew I had to find one who could teach me how to not only read the tags, but also the mindset of those we were up against. I was in possession of hundreds of photo's of Graffiti tags from individuals, crews, and gang Graffiti, but I needed someone who was in the life, to interpret what it all meant.
To this day, I still will not name the individual who literally was my graffiti professor (snitches get stitches) so we met everyday at a local coffee house and my education began. After a month or so we learned to read 90% of the tags and gained a lot of intelligence on who they were. We started to do stake outs in various stations at night and in the early morning. Arrests and confiscation of spray cans followed. When we realized we needed new laws, the City responded by passing several ordinances in regards to graffiti equipment and markers. One of the big changes was getting the City ordinance holding parents financially responsible for the damage of a child living at home under 18.
Then 100s of arrests followed and the constant newspaper articles monitoring the effort was a plus and a minus of sorts. Some crews quit and some were attracted to the sudden attention. It was not unusual to see (Fuck Angone) or (Angone sucks) on trains and CTA property. Our efforts also contributed to another minus we had not expected. Several tagging crews and individual taggers gave up on the CTA and started on the neighborhoods. This put them in direct contact with hard core gangs who controlled neighborhoods with their graffiti gang signs.The gangs were not taggers they used graffiti to mark turf, to eulogize slain members, to put down other gangs etc.
The gang culture was an entirely different effort then dealing with graffiti taggers. To be able to read gang signs I again needed a solid informant. Gang snitches didn't fear stitches, gang snitches feared being found dead in ditches. I was successful after a few weeks to have gained the confidence of a person who trusted me and also I trusted him. We were careful where we met, lower Wacker Dr drive during rush hour, and in the colder months a book store called Afterwords just off lower Wacker Dr. After about 2 months I was up to speed on Chicago's main 50 to 60 gangs and their signs. I knew the difference between The Insane Unknowns, the Almighty Gang Nation,La Raza, Gangster disciples, and the Gang Two Six to name just a few.
While all of this was going on I met one day with the Mayor and the Commissioner of Streets and sanitation. We agreed we needed two things going forward to keep Chicago the beautiful City it is. One was a blaster program to blast off graffiti as soon as possible, to stop the taggers from having their work seen. The other was the easy availability of spray paint. We were successful on both fronts. After a lengthy 3 year court fight the supreme Court's Justice John Paul Stevens gave the City a gift on it's birthday March 4th 1995, he let stand Chicago's ban on spray paint .
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