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Graffiti tagging raises concerns in Talent

TALENT — Graffiti is on the increase and much of it is gang-related, says the town's police chief.

"Most of the stuff involves the gangs the Norteños and the Sureños," said Police Chief Mike Moran. "They like to mark their territory. It's kind of showing that 'Hey, the gangs are here.' "

Increased graffiti sightings in recent months prompted city officials to alert citizens in the December issue of "The Flash," the city's monthly newsletter. Three commercial buildings in the downtown area were hit by taggers in late November.

"A lot of people think that it's quite a leap that graffiti is a serious crime," said Moran. "But consider what it means to the criminal community. They take it as a sign of dominance or taking ground."

That can lead to violence over who will have dominion over a fence, for example, the chief said.

The Planning Department sent notices to the commercial property owners asking them to remove the graffiti, said Planning Director Mark Knox. The problems were taken care of within three days after the letters were received.

"It's appreciated that it was removed quickly," said Knox. "It happened on one weekend and it was remedied by the next."

City efforts to curb graffiti include quick removal, notices to property owners, publicizing the issue and having police patrols look for suspicious activity.

"It's a crime-prevention tool to remove it," said Moran. "It removes the angles whereby the gangs claim an area through the graffiti."

Graffiti incidents have numbered around two dozen per year, said Moran, who has been chief since August 2008. Detailed numbers are not available presently because the department is changing its computer system.

While much of the graffiti has occurred downtown, it can happen all over, said Moran. There's been tagging at Walmart, the Little League field in Chuck Roberts Park, in manufactured housing areas and on public structures such as bridges.

"There's quite a bit on commercial buildings," said Moran. "They are usually a bigger canvas in the minds of the perpetrators."

Taggers are likely to hit electrical and phone boxes in residential areas. The power and phone companies are becoming more responsive to removing graffiti quickly, Moran said, while city crews move rapidly to clean up tagged public property.

Officers also work to educate the public on what graffiti may mean in terms of gang influence.

"If we ... see it in a certain housing area, we will put it out to a manager or to parents of kids who might be at risk ... to get their assistance," said Moran.

Parents should be alert for markings on school books, notebooks and other home items. Symbols may include the numbers 13 or 14, often in Roman numerals.

Sureños are associated with 13, which stands for M, the 13th letter in the alphabet and may represent "Mexican mafia." Norteños are associated with 14 and N, the 14th letter, linked to "nuestra familia," Spanish for "our family."

Norteños markings have been more prevalent in Talent recently, said Moran.

It's difficult to catch taggers, who usually operate at night, the chief said. He suspects a lot of the perpetrators are juveniles sent out by someone else at home suggesting the crimes.

Citizens spotting graffiti can call the Planning Department at 541-535-7401. Those observing suspicious activity or tagging are asked to call the Police Department at 541-776-7206.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.