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Tag! You're It! Looking At The Work Of Pittsburgh's Anti-Graffiti Squad

Ian Ransley

While they may not be investigating high-profile crimes like homicide or robbery, Pittsburgh’s anti-graffiti squad provides a valuable resource to the city. Revived in Nov. 2015, the squad recently arrested one of Pittsburgh’s major taggers. To get the scoop on what led up to the arrest, Essential Pittsburgh’s Paul Guggenheimer sat down with graffiti squad detectives Alphonso Sloan and Braden Seese.

The alleged tagger is 22 year old Carnegie Mellon University art student Max Gonzales. His tags, which included GEM and BTK, were found across Oakland, Shadyside, East Liberty, and Bloomfield, adding up to a total of $100,000 in damages. He had allegedly been at the tagging game for a long time, many years before either Sloan or Seese began looking into his case. So what led to the arrest of this infamous serial tagger? Social media.

“It started off as a tip,” Sloan said. “He did some vandalism on a box truck over in the Bloomfield area and the owner of the business posted something on Facebook and a Facebook friend said ‘I know this kid that did this tag, he’s a CMU student.’”

Tipped off to the vandal’s location, the detectives found his back pack on the CMU campus, filled to the brim with graffiti paraphernalia. Upon his arrest, the alleged tagger cooperated with police and admitted to all of the works of vandalism.

While many detectives might rely on clues at the crime scene or stake outs to catch their perpetrators, Seese said that the graffiti squad largely relies on tips and citizen call-ins to track down their targets. Taggers do not often go unnoticed while performing their crime, but few people call in to police. In the CMU student’s case, only 4 of his 58 tags were reported to police.

Fines for arrested graffiti artists quickly add up said Sloan, but the high cost is necessary to pay for the removal of the tags. It costs $300 for the first square foot, and an additional $50 for each square foot after that. Taggers can pay off the fine gradually, but are on probation until they settle their debt.

Before the graffiti squad, it was much simpler for taggers to resume their crime after being caught. As graffiti was only investigated on a zone by zone basis by the police in each neighborhood, a convicted artist would only be charged for the tags in a certain area and pay a comparatively minor cost.

“You figure, ‘Hey, I’ve committed this crime hundreds of times and only got charged one time, and I got charged with a minor crime,’” Sloan said. “So you really don’t have an incentive to stop.”

Meanwhile, the graffiti squad is able to investigate and tie together tags from across the city, leading to much larger punishments for taggers.

While some graffiti may be seen as works of art, Sloan said the vast majority of vandalism accounts they investigate are tags rather than full murals. These tags can take as little as five minutes to create and often consist of a small collection of letters.

“Every major tag that you see out there is part of an ongoing investigation,” Seese said, adding that the squad keeps a database of all the graffiti tags across the city.

To report an incident of vandalism to the anti-graffiti squad, contact your local zone commander.

More Essential Pittsburgh segments can be heard here

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