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This game of tag proves serious and expensive

On the streets of this city, the game tag is no longer child's play.

In the hands of graffiti artists wielding Magic Marker and spray paint, tag has graduated into a full-throttle race to see who can deface the most property in town. The bigger the space, the better.

Mostly teenagers, they call themselves taggers. Police, however, call them trouble with a capital T. "These kids are exhibitionists who don't know how to express themselves, so they come out at night and use the walls of the community as their forum," said Tracey Schofield, a Pinellas Park police officer who monitors tagging. "They don't care that they're destroying people's property. It's one big joke to taggers."

No one inside City Hall is laughing.

Since October the city has spent more than $11,000 removing the scrawlings. While some private property owners have been hit, the primary target is city-owned property, such as walls, street signs, outdoor racquetball courts, fences, benches, picnic tables, utility boxes, even water fountains. At least a dozen signs are replaced each month.

Mention tagging to City Manager Ron Forbes at your own peril. The man is angry.

"We're wasting money because a few kids have lost respect for other people's property," Forbes said. "We could have bought a new police car with $11,000.

"If someone painted all over their parents' home or car, they would be incensed. We're going to have to teach them the same respect for city and private property."

First, though, police will have to catch the taggers.

A 1992 ordinance was supposed to help achieve that goal. Instead, the ordinance has saddled private property owners with the burden of either cleaning up a mess they did not create or paying a fine in addition to the costs of painting over the graffiti.

Realizing the ironies in the ordinance, the city approved a graffiti reward program designed to encourage residents to report taggers. Police officers hoped for an avalanche of calls from residents. The phones rarely ring, Schofield said.

As officers continue to wait for tips from the community, people like Kim Ackerman, a manager of the 7-Eleven convenience store at 9010 60th St. N, say they are starting to feel helpless.

"We had been lucky, and then this happened," she said referring to the amateurish drawings of mushrooms and scribblings along an outside wall of the store. "We're going to clean it up, but they'll be back. When they start on one wall, it just goes on and on."

Perhaps Ackerman's store will be a one-time victim. Shortly after the graffiti appeared, Schofield arrested a 17-year-old Pinellas Park boy who is thought to be responsible for defacing seven other properties, mainly city-owned.

Yet with at least 200 open cases he says that one arrest makes a negligible dent in the problem.

"This is not an invisible problem; at some point it's in everyone's face," Schofield said. "But until citizens get tired of seeing this community spray painted, it's going to be a losing battle. All we can do is take a report and hope someone calls in."

The tagging of Pinellas Park is minimal compared to what is happening in cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Phoenix and the suburbs that surround them. Even in St. Petersburg, the city has spent nearly $100,000 trying to fend off ugly street graffiti.

Taggers have scarred Palo Alto, Calif., near San Francisco so badly that City Council members recently spent more than $100,000 to create a graffiti hotline and to arm residents and business owners with customized clean-up kits of paint remover, mineral oil, sponges and matching-color spray paints.

In other cites the so-called art has spurred violence. Last December, in Sylmar, Calif., a suburb of Los Angeles, a 17-year-old boy was killed after he refused to turn over his jacket to a tagging crew in the middle of a graffiti spree.

While officials do not believe Pinellas Park taggers to be gang-related, they say the teens are dangerous.

"You get 15 or 20 of them together on one night and things could get rough," Schofield said. "They all want to prove they're the best."

That is why Forbes is convinced the only way to slay the monster that is tagging is with big city solutions. "I want to see both public and private property owners reimbursed by the child and their parents. We're keeping track of the cost so that if we can we find them we're going to recover that cost," Forbes said. "This is serious."

The list of possible solutions is endless, Schofield said. The one certainty in this battle is this: "This is just the beginning, these kids are just learning. Soon they're going to get tired of spray paint."