Until recently, local taggers could be almost assured they would not be held financially responsible for damages resulting from their graffiti. But in January, a Superior Court judge ruled that a local tagger, Justin Lewis, must pay the city back the $9,200 it cost to remove his tags in New Haven. Emboldened by the ruling, city employees working for the Livable City Initiative hope that other cases will have the same result.
Lewis, who goes by the name Dapper, was also granted accelerated rehabilitation by Judge Philip Scarpellino, which means the charges will not go on his permanent record provided he fulfills certain requirements determined by the judge. Taggers are not typically required to pay for the costs incurred by their graffiti, according to Carmen Mendez, a neighborhood specialist with New Haven’s Livable City Initiative. Mendez led the push to prosecute Lewis and require him to pay the city back, saying she felt a responsibility to the residents of her neighborhood.
“I felt that I owed it to the residents of the city of New Haven to do more than just take [the graffiti] off but to actually find out who’s responsible and have them prosecute it for destruction and defacement of public property,” she said. “Graffiti is not a victimless crime.”
Mendez said she became frustrated with working to remove graffiti only to see it reappear. In order to pursue the Dapper case, she teamed up with New Haven Police Department detective Orlando Crespo. Both Mendez and Crespo had taken photographs of the tags in the neighborhood, and Mendez mentioned that a subcontractor who had been painting over the tags took pictures as well. According to Mendez, Crespo has a “vast network” of colleagues he works with on graffiti cases, including people working with the New York Police Department.
Lewis was caught tagging in New York, Mendez said, adding that operating in multiple locations is a way for taggers to become famous within the subculture. “They tag on the side of the [Metro North] barriers all the way down to New York,” she said.
Neighborhood specialists like Mendez are responsible for making sure the housing stock in their neighborhood doesn’t fall into decay, a responsibility that includes tracking graffiti, along with other issues like boarded up doors and windows. When dealing with a blighted building, the neighborhood specialist is responsible for finding out who owns the building and sending the owner letters and citations.
Each neighborhood specialist serves a specific area, and acts as the point person for a variety of issues and complaints related to the neighborhood. Mendez, who serves the downtown and Wooster Square neighborhoods, emphasized that the negative effects of graffiti stretch beyond the aesthetic impact on a neighborhood.
“It makes people think that they are in an unsafe, uncontrolled, wild environment,” she said. “I took responsibility for chasing them down because I thought the harm they were causing was more than the property itself.”
Mendez wrote an impact statement for the case, which Judge Scarpellino read. She also testified in court in January about the effect graffiti has on the neighborhood. Mendez said she was surprised but satisfied with Scarpellino’s ruling, saying that she had not heard of any other case in which taggers have been forced to reimburse the city.
Linda Davis-Cannon, the neighborhood specialist for Newhallville, praised Mendez’s efforts. She said graffiti has become less prevalent over time in Newhallville, though she is not sure why. Like Mendez, she mentioned the negative effect graffiti can have on a neighborhood, adding that she used to receive many calls from residents about the issue.
Mayoral spokesman Laurence Grotheer condemned graffiti in an interview with the News. “It is unauthorized, unacceptable and selfish,” he said. Although Grotheer did not comment on the specific ruling by Judge Scarpellino, he said, “I would simply say that those who willfully engage in property damage ought to be held accountable.”
Frank D’Amore, who is the deputy director of neighborhood and property services at the LCI and who oversees all of its neighborhood specialists, said he hopes that the Dapper case will discourage other taggers. According to D’Amore, the LCI has received a lead on a new tagger, which it forwarded to the police department. He also praised Mendez’s efforts, echoing her statement that graffiti “is not a victimless crime.”
New Haven has a $30,000 annual budget for the removal of graffiti. According to Mendez, some Dapper tags remain present in the city because the money allotted for graffiti removal ran out for this fiscal year. Mendez said they will have to wait until the next fiscal year begins on July 1 to cover the remaining tags.
“We want to get the neighborhood in such good condition that people can in turn look at themselves and realize they’re full of potential,” Mendez said.
Talia Soglin | firstname.lastname@example.org