Writing's on the wall for graffiti guerrilla
Notorious S.F. tagger hit with $20,000 fine
Tuesday, July 25, 2006
Carlos Romero left his spray-painted graffiti marks around San Francisco for years, tagging everything from fences and walls to street signs and trash cans with such monikers as CREAM and QUESO (which in Spanish means cheese).
And it wasn't just dairy products he had an affinity for. When police linked Romero to one tag name, city officials said, he would simply switch to another, and in addition to CREAM and QUESO he left a trail of COMA, LAFER and MELOH up and down his favorite thoroughfares, namely bustling Mission Street and Ocean Avenue.
The 20-year-old San Francisco resident had a particular fondness for vandalizing public properties, especially those belonging to BART and the Municipal Transportation Agency, which runs the Muni, where he used large, curly letters to scrawl the tag name BST -- a reference to the graffiti tagging crew he hangs out with known as Bombing San Francisco Transit.
But much to the relief of city workers who have spent years scrubbing off and painting over Romero's work, it seems those days are over.
San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera announced Monday that his office obtained a civil injunction and $20,000 in financial penalties against Romero, whom Herrera called "one of San Francisco's most prolific graffiti vandals."
The case marks the first time the city has filed a civil lawsuit against a graffiti tagger.
"We want to send a message to vandals that we are going to do whatever it takes to go after them," Herrera said.
While the civil complaint against Romero linked him to 11 tagging incidents, officials say he probably is responsible for countless more. And that's just during the two years he's been an adult. Officials said he also has a juvenile record, which they declined to discuss.
"He was one of the most notorious taggers in San Francisco," said Deputy City Attorney Machaela Hoctor, a member of the city attorney's Neighborhood and Resident Safety Division, which prosecuted the case. "As San Francisco goes, he's been an absolute nuisance for the police."
He also isn't alone. In 2001, a civil grand jury found that San Francisco spends more than $22 million in taxpayer money annually to clean and cover over graffiti. Today that price tag is believed to be significantly higher. Officials say San Francisco has a reputation among taggers as a "destination city," meaning people travel from afar just to leave their spray-painted mark on its surfaces.
Earlier this month, Mayor Gavin Newsom announced a new effort to streamline the city's efforts to clean up graffiti by centralizing all removal and abatement through the city's Department of Public Works, rather than having several city departments respond to the problem. The hope is that public property will be cleaned more quickly. Newsom also earmarked $475,000 in his 2006 proposed budget to help pay for the new plan.
Moreover, an ordinance allows the city to fine property owners who fail to clean up graffiti on their property within 30 days, though exceptions are made for people with financial hardships or whose property is continually hit by taggers.
As for Romero, officials are confident he won't strike again. In a news release announcing the settlement, Herrera even called the young man, who still lives with his mother, a "reformed tagger."
As part of the settlement approved Wednesday by San Francisco Superior Court Judge Ronald Quidachay, Romero agreed to a court-ordered injunction in which for the next five years he will not be allowed to possess anything that can be used for graffiti, such as markers or spray paint -- even stickers and shoe polish. He has a curfew that forces him to be indoors by 11 p.m., and he is barred from being within 100 yards of any intersection where he is known to have tagged.
And just as his graffiti has achieved notoriety, his voice may, too, as Romero will become the city's spokesman of sorts for what the bureaucrats like to call graffiti abatement when he performs a radio public service announcement warning others about the consequences of committing vandalism.
His $20,000 fine will be reduced by half if he manages to pay $10,000 within four years.
He has a day job at the Pottery Barn that could help cover the costs.
Romero, who city officials said declined to have a lawyer represent him during the proceedings, did not return calls seeking comment.
"He took responsibility," Hoctor said, adding that Romero cooperated fully during the city attorney's four-month investigation. "He was accountable, and that goes a long way for his chance of reform."
To Mohammed Nuru, deputy director of operations for the Department of Public Works and chairman of the city's graffiti advisory board task force, the injunction against Romero was good news.
"It's all over the area," Nuru said of Romero's taggings near the City College of San Francisco, and though he was unfamiliar with Romero's name, he knew all too well his tag moniker CREAM, which stands for "Cash Rules Everything Around Me."
"I'm very happy to see the judge make the right judgment when it comes to people who are defacing public or private property," Nuru said.
Romero was arrested and charged with six misdemeanor counts involving graffiti in a criminal case last year, according to the city's civil complaint. He performed 39 hours of community service as a result, and the charges were dropped.
And though he was on probation for another graffiti-related incident, he continued to offend, the complaint said. In seven of the 11 cases mentioned in the complaint, Romero admitted to police that he was responsible for the graffiti, and police witnessed him doing the actual graffiti in some others.
In one case last year, Romero was detained by police for spray-painting BST in green on a privately owned wall, and he immediately told the officer, "It was me. I spray-painted the banner," the complaint said.
The officer searched Romero's backpack and found it filled with graffiti tools: cans of tan, green and orange spray paint, permanent markers, a container of shoe polish and various sticker decals with his monikers CREAM and MELOH. He pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 90 hours of graffiti removal and 18 months probation.
Romero hangs out with the BST tagging crew, but Hoctor said it was unknown exactly how many members there are in the group.
And while he mainly targeted Ocean Avenue and Mission Street, areas that are close to his home, his graffiti has been seen all over the city, particularly near BART stations, Hoctor said.
During the investigation, Romero told authorities that he focused primarily on city-owned property and that he typically tried to stay away from damaging personal property "because he knows the effect it has on residents," Hoctor said.
Street poles tended to be a favorite.
But, she noted, "that being said, the last incident he was arrested for was for tagging on personal property."