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City going after graffiti with ‘Rusty’ out of business

Elgcity employee Rob removes graffiti from concrete Monday Prairie Park Elgin. Part graffiti cleanup involves powerwashing.  April 30 2013

Elgin city employee Rob removes graffiti from concrete Monday at Prairie Park in Elgin. Part of graffiti cleanup involves powerwashing. April 30, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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To report graffiti in Elgin:

Call the city’ graffiti hotline at 847-931-5599.

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Updated: June 4, 2013 6:04AM

ELGIN — For more than a year, it seemed that no curb, building, piece of playground equipment, garbage can, railroad crossing arm, or sign in Elgin was safe from “Rusty,” the city’s most prolific graffiti tagger.

Equally busy was Elgin’s graffiti removal crew. If there was a spot where “Rusty” would scrawl his name, the crew would move in to remove it.

The back-and-forth vandalism and cleanup went on from December 2011 until last month, when a 19-year-old suspect was arrested. All told, officials said, Armando Cazares (aka “Rusty”) had tagged at least 154 spots in that period — often writing his moniker in marker or shoe polish — before he was caught.

Cleaning up just the “Rusty” graffiti cost the city of Elgin an estimated $7,200 in staff time and equipment. The cleanup work was done by the city’s graffiti removal van.

Since 1997, Elgin has had a graffiti removal crew, said Dan Rich, public works superintendent.

Rich started the program at the city council’s request, either painting over or using a power washer to remove graffiti on both public property and private property with the owner’s permission.

Over the years, the graffiti removal detail has been in two different city departments.

For several years, the work was done under the auspices of community restitution — giving low-level offenders work as part of court-ordered restitution.

In 2008, graffiti cleanup duties went back to the public works department, said Aaron Neal, traffic crew leader with the department. Rob, a graffiti removal specialist, works under him. (Authorities asked that Rob’s last name not be used in this story because of the work he does dealing with gangs.)

Photo evidence

When Rob goes out to remove graffiti, he uses an iPad to photograph its location and the graffiti itself. The iPad automatically notes where the photo was taken and allows the city to create portfolios of the graffiti being found.

When “Rusty” was arrested, workers were able to email police all of the locations and incidents of his vandalism around Elgin.

Cazares, of the 600 block of Center Street in Elgin, is charged with a felony count of criminal damage to property over $300, and misdemeanor counts of unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia and obstructing identification.

According to police, an Elgin officer spotted Cazares near Cooper Street and Dundee Avenue at about 12:30 a.m. April 9 near a street sign and garbage can that recently had been tagged.

The officer “determined that (Cazares) did in fact recently tag both items based on evidence located on his person that contained a similar moniker,” according to Elgin police Cmdr. Glenn Theriault.

Elgin’s graffiti tends to be either gang-related or by taggers such as “Rusty” who are scrawling little more than their name, officials said.

Residents can report graffiti within Elgin by calling the city’s graffiti hotline at 847-931-5599. Residents also can submit a Graffiti Removal Request Form on the city’s Web page.

If the graffiti is on public property, it can be removed immediately. If it is on private property, the city must get a waiver from the property owner, Rich said.

“We can remove about 60 percent (of reported graffiti) in one business day,” Rich said.

If the property is bank-owned, however, and the city cannot get a quick response, it is more than likely going to get cleaned up before too long, Rich said.

Graffiti ‘season’

There are two ways the city cleans up graffiti — either by using a water-and-sand blasting process, or by painting over the work.

Their overriding concern, Rich said, is “do no harm,” and not leave the structure in worse condition than before the graffiti was left.

He remembers one time when a graffiti artist left a very bad word on a brick building. The property owner decided to remove the word using a sand blaster — and ended up permanently scrawling the word onto the brick.

That is what city crews want to avoid, said Rich said.

The water-and-sand blasting equipment can work until outside temperatures are 32 degrees, but cold weather doesn’t necessarily stop the graffiti taggers, Neal said. Some taggers will do their often nighttime work in the cold.

Spring does tend to be the start of the peak time for graffiti to show up. About 70 percent of graffiti shows up between April and November, Neal said.

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