ST. PETERSBURG — A growing number of graffiti bandits are making their mark across the city, scrawling nicknames, gang symbols and other messages on walls, trash bins, sidewalks, restrooms, benches and more.
Reports of graffiti vandalism have quadrupled since 2005, when there were 332 incidents. This year there were 1,242 and at least 9 percent were gang-related, the city estimates. Tampa in the past year had 399 incidents, Clearwater 105.
St. Petersburg officials attribute most of the vandalism to bored teenagers looking for a way to stand out or express themselves.
"We are in an urban situation and with that comes this kind of urban problem," said City Council Chairman Jamie Bennett. "We have a situation that is in control, but we need to stay alert and keep an eye on it."
But some fear the graffiti suggests more than child's play.
Symbols representing the Bloods, Sur 13, Crips and other national gangs known for brutal violence and ruthless recruitment tactics can regularly be found alongside spray-painted proclamations of nicknames and crushes. Antipolice, racially charged and profane statements have also been scribbled along public and private properties across the city.
"It's very disturbing," said Beth Connor, who came across a symbol for the Crips while walking her dog at Bay Vista Park earlier this year. At about the same time, some neighbors complained their cars were stolen or broken into. Connor feared the worst. "I'm concerned and would like to know if there is a correlation," she said.
City leaders say they are working aggressively to educate teenagers about the ramifications of defacing property, but they can't explain the surge in graffiti.
"I really don't know what specifically might be contributing to that," said Gang Intelligence Sgt. James Nolin. "We do have some established gangs in the city, but most of them are not affiliated with national gangs."
The gang graffiti is likely the result of "kids who may be emulating something they saw or most of the time it's kids that might just be starting to show an interest in gangs," Nolin said.
Still, recent reports are a minor annoyance compared with 1995, the height of the city's graffiti epidemic, when more than 2,200 cases were reported, prompting the city to create its graffiti removal program.
This time around, more than half of the graffiti activity is the work of "taggers," who leave symbols, usually a nickname, to mark their territory or impress other taggers.
When downtown St. Petersburg saw a jump in graffiti activity earlier in the year, police spoke to art students at Gibbs High School and warned them vandals would be prosecuted. If found guilty, a tagger faces a misdemeanor charge and $108 in restitution to cover the city's cost for cleaning up the graffiti. Taggers fined more than $1,000 could face felony charges, Nolin said.
The surge in activity has strained the city's graffiti removal program, which temporarily hired a second worker earlier this year.
The city spent about $45,000 to remove graffiti in 2006. This year, it spent about $53,000.
Badr El-Amin, owner of El's Men's Wear on Central Avenue, said he is tired of having to paint over sometimes lewd marks left on his property. "You see all these different kinds of inappropriate things," he said. "People don't want to see that stuff."
But the city's graffiti removal program has been so successful most people aren't aware there has been an uptick in vandalism. It takes the city less than four business days to remove all trace of a tagger's work.
To combat graffiti, residents must report it, Bennett said. "It is just like a pothole," he said. "People need to call it in and the city will take of it."
A few graffiti proponents wonder if the only way to stop the growing vandalism is to give artists a legal way to do it. Communities in New York, North Carolina and Indiana have set up legal graffiti walls to deter vandals. In Gainesville, University of Florida students have long expressed themselves on the school's graffiti wall.
St. Petersburg should have something similar, said Brad Wolf, a bartender at Durty Nelly's on Central Avenue. He doesn't mind when taggers leave their names along the Irish tavern's storefront and alleyway.
"It's art," he said.
Cristina Silva can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or email@example.com.