The Mayor’s Anti-Graffiti Task Force Cleaning Up the Mess

The Mayor’s Anti-Graffiti Task Force

Just about anyone who lived in or visited New York City in the 1980s or early ‘90s probably has vivid recollections of how the city looked back then. The streets were dirty, whole neighborhoods were “off-limits” to anybody who wasn’t looking to get mugged—and the buildings, billboards, and subway system were covered in a thick, ever-changing layer of graffiti.

While some of this unauthorized urban decoration showed remarkable skill and could easily be filed under “art”—even if it was technically vandalism—most of the graffiti covering the city consisted of hastily-scrawled “tags” thrown up to demarcate gang territory, or to fortify the reputation of the individual tagger. Most taggers used the classic Krylon spray paint, while the less skilled armed themselves with jumbo-sized felt-tip markers. The real bottom-feeders simply scratched their tags into subway car windows, plexiglass phone booth panels, and any painted surface with keys, razors, or other edged objects. Taken together, the sprayed, inked, and scratched calling cards became synonymous with urban blight and lawlessness—and the city fathers decided to take action.

The Broken Window Theory

One of the catchphrases that characterized former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s administration was his “broken window” theory of government. The “broken window” theory held that an unfixed broken window in a building gives a city block the appearance of decay and disrepair, and thus encourages the congregation of lawless individuals, who see the physical deterioration as a sign that their shady activities will go unnoticed. Once the criminal element is established on a block or in a neighborhood, law-abiding citizens start avoiding the area, leaving it to the miscreants and loiterers, and eventually the pestilence spreads outward into otherwise “healthy” blocks.

Giuliani saw graffiti as a symptom of this kind of urban decay, and set about eradicating it—especially in the subway system, where for years commuters had been harassed and victimized by gangs of troublemakers and criminals, and intimidated and demoralized by the proliferation of graffiti vandalism. To combat that proliferation, Giuliani formed the Mayor’s Anti-Graffiti Task Force in 1995.

The Frontlines

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has taken up where Giuliani left off, throwing his office’s weight behind a renewed effort to eradicate graffiti vandalism in the city. The Anti-Graffiti Task Force under Mayor Bloomberg includes the efforts and participation of city departments like Sanitation, Consumer Affairs, Police, Fire, Transportation, Cultural Affairs, Environmental Protection, Parks and Recreation, Housing Preservation, the Human Resource Administration, Housing Authority, Landmarks Commission, and Transit Authority, as well as ordinary citizens and neighborhood groups. According to the task force’s website, the group’s mission “combines prevention and education, enforcement, removal, surveying, technical solutions, and community outreach.”

Just as multiple organizations pool their efforts to support the Anti-Graffiti Task Force, the task force itself is part of the city’s larger Citywide Vandals Task Force, a group that handles everything from spray-painted shop grates to vandalized bus-stop kiosks.

This vandal squad is composed of almost 70 police officers and administrative personnel based in Brooklyn. They speak to school kids by day and go undercover at night to catch the vandals in the act. Through their work they have been able to develop a computer database that shows a vandal’s tag, along with other personal identifying information that is now included on their arrest record. Since the mid-1990s, the Anti-Graffiti Task Force arm of the Vandals Task Force has made 2,800 arrests, and dramatically decreased the amount and scope of illegal graffiti in all five boroughs.

Community outreach is another means by which the task force gets its message to the citizenry. Both the Transit Authority Police and the NYPD’s Community Assistance Unit (CAU) work with schools and various neighborhood groups and city agencies to spread awareness of the task force’s activities and mandates, and through joint effort, coordinate the task force itself.

As the CAU’s First Deputy Commissioner, Thomas Curitore explains, “Our main function is we get the people to clean the graffiti; we do clean-up events, and we also run the Mayor’s Paint Program, which gives free paint out to community groups that want to volunteer [to eradicate graffiti.]”

Police have advanced tools at their disposal to corral the wrongdoers. A small handful of officers are assigned to the GHOST unit, the (Graffiti Habitual Offender Suppression Team), and these ghost cops live up to their name by tracking and nabbing the city’s most industrious offenders. Using conventional investigative skills, as well as a newly created graffiti offender databank, these officers gather ample information to make an arrest.

“A “tag” is like a signature,” Lt. Steve Mona, commander of the special unit, explains. “The vandal does it the same way every time. So, working closely with the district attorney, we can use that to enhance cases. We can’t do it all the time, but it is one of the tools we have at our disposal.”

The Weapons

The weapons in the war against graffiti and other forms of vandalism are relatively simple. In addition to the vigilance of residents and the 311 government information line that can be used to report defaced property, the city uses high-pressure cleaning and painting trucks, paint rollers, and—as one would imagine—lots of paint.

The tools and the talent have proven a potent antidote to the problem of graffiti. Since the task force was founded, over 16 million square feet of graffiti has been removed from over 6,000 sites throughout the city. The original funding for the Mayor’s Paint Program supplies ran out several years ago, but private corporations like Home Depot have donated additional supplies to continue the program, and now New Yorkers can donate via the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York. Since 1997 The Mayor’s Paint Program has distributed 16,703 gallons of paint, 15,699 paint rollers, 9,672 brushes, and countless drop cloths and paint trays to church, neighborhood, youth, and business groups wanting to clean up their blocks.

More Allies

‘Graffiti Free New York’ is a program handled through the not-for-profit Economic Development Corporation (EDC) in cooperation with the task force. The EDC is privately funded and encourages investment in the city. Its program allows companies and citizens to donate paint or money, which goes for the purchase of supplies and equipment. Right now, the program in conjunction with the Anti-Graffiti Task Force has a dozen power-washer trucks patrolling the city and removing unsightly vandalism. These vehicles can remove up to 20,000 square feet of graffiti per day. To put that into perspective, traditional methods—meaning old-fashioned elbow grease—can only handle about 2,000 square feet a day.

The Man in Charge

The Cooperator recently asked the CAU’s Tom Curitore to talk about the Anti-Graffiti Task Force and discuss its short-term and long-term goals for reducing graffiti in New York City.

What has made the Mayor’s Anti-Graffiti Task Force so successful?

“We have a proactive approach. In addition to following up on 311 calls when get we complaints about graffiti, we actually send people out into the neighborhoods where the call originated. We have a liaison unit that goes to the property owner and gets permission from that property owner, tenant or occupant to clean the building.

“Then we also do and coordinate what we call a ‘blitz.’ We go to certain areas with our trucks and knock on doors. Where we find graffiti, we just clean up—we’ll do a whole block or a community board in one day. It makes it more proactive; instead of waiting for people to call us, we actually go out and clean up where it’s needed.”

What are the Anti-Graffiti Task goals for the next several years?

“We will continue to be proactive. We’re actually working more with community groups to get them out there helping with the effort in their own neighborhoods. We often find that if a merchant has a store with a lot of graffiti on the [exterior or security grate] they go home at five o’clock, and the people who live in the neighborhood have to look at that [graffiti]. So we’re getting a lot of help from community groups. We give them the free paint, and they go out and clean it up.

“We also get a lot of reports and tips about graffiti through the 311 phone line. A lot of community service workers are doing graffiti cleanup now; we work with the Department of Probation’s community service program, we work with the Housing Authority Wildcat Program—it’s an organization that helps the chronically unemployed—to help us remove graffiti. It gives us more resources than we have had, and enables us to be more than just one or two trucks patrolling the whole city.”

What are the benefits to the Task Force’s multi-departmental structure?

“We try to take a multi-faceted approach to whole areas—in other words, if we see graffiti, we might also see weeds or garbage—so we get all the relevant city agencies involved. If there’s an ongoing graffiti or vandalism problem in a dimly lit area, what we’ll do is get someone to check on the lighting. If a fence is broken and people are getting in through the break to do graffiti, we’ll have the fence repaired.

“That’s the benefit of a multi-faceted approach. We don’t just clean up graffiti and leave. We did a location in Queens in July and we needed bucket trucks because the vandalized area was high up on an overpass, so another agency loaned us a bucket truck. We brought the truck there, we put the guys in the bucket, and they went up and cleaned off the graffiti. Plus, the Department of Probation also went in there at the same time with their people and took care of all the weeds and trash. We’re trying to be more active in that way.”

What additional problems have cropped up since the Task Force was organized?

“Really it’s the same thing. We’re trying to enlist the help of community groups and volunteer organizations to assist us with ridding the neighborhoods of graffiti, plus we’re using community service personnel also. We dealt with 6,000 locations last year, but that’s nothing when you think of it—this a big city.”

For more information on the Anti-Graffiti Task Force go to their website at To report graffiti, dial the city’s Citizen Service Center information hotline, 311.

Annette Hall is a freelance writer living in Framingham, Massachusetts.

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  • graffiti isnt as bad as people make it out to be.I understand if someone writes on a clean surface, thats not right. But if theres a surface already marked with graffiti what does it matter if more is added to that spot.
  • I am requesting an email adress of the NYC vandal squad so I can make a full report on an active graffiti writer including video and pictures of it taking place. Much appreciated.
  • I dont think that the city will be able to ever get rid of this graffiti problem. There are to many kids and adults doing it and aerosal is cheaper than buckets of paint. Is there hope for this city at all?
  • Man you people are rediculous, the city is bombed just as much as it used to be. The task force isn't doing anything but giving unfair sentences to kids who aren't doing anything but writing on walls. This is NYC if you don't like graffiti move your yuppie butt somewhere else. Graf aint murder, I think the real problem is all the advertisements bombarding the city lately that are just plain offensive. Graf is letters in colorful forms, advertisement is sex drugs and all other vices thrown at you daily. Whats the real problem? You decide
  • It's the truth,you have people out there committing real crimes and your worried about people writing graffitti.The charge you get for writing graffitti is much worse then people selling drugs.It's just plain ridiculous.
  • this is so dumb why you guys crack down on people writing and expressing art and giving them hard time you guys arent lookin for the murderers rapist fraud people. come on this is ridicoulous look at the streets of new york there beatiful with art and look at all the drug dealers and rapist still rapieng and selling drugs
  • I think that graffiti is like any kind of art. I dont think it actually a crime. It would be better if cities put up a clean surface just especially for these artists. And when the police try to find these people, they're just wasting they're time to get rapist, sexually offenders and etc. Graffiti is also some peoples only talents and truly expressing theirselves. So it's your choice to make graffiti illegal or legal but just remember graffiti is art and expression.
  • If you think graffiti is art and expression you ought to visit the zoo. You'd love how the chimps fingerpaint in kaka on the freshly cleaned floor of their cages every day.
  • No matter how many cops they put on their so called "vandal squad", no matter how harsh the punishment becomes, graffiti won't die. It's a part of New York City's history and it'll live on forever. Many people paint because it is one of the last true freedoms a person has and they love graffiti for that very reason.
  • graffiti all together is just one big step towards a person truly expressing themselves and becoming free from this so called "free world". As long as we street artist have imagination and factories still make paint or any other type of graffiti material this movement to get rid of graffiti is just a waste of time, also you waste tons of money just to get one spot off the wall! to tell you the truth, a true artist will come back and hit it harder. Save your breath and money America times like these we truly DO need the money. GRAFFITI FOR LIFE!!
  • another street artist.. on Tuesday, May 11, 2010 12:23 PM
    im not going to write alot because the other people before me wrote it perfectly,but all im going to say is that i support graffiti and have been doin it since elementary school and no matter how the government of hypocryts tries to stop me il keep on at it,Graffiti will never die.
  • I do believe that graffiti is an art and some of its incredible, nevertheless the problem is doing it with out permission. No one has the right to use someone elses property, including government property, without their permission to do graffiti. Its like if someone did graffiti in your car, or your cloth or your house for that matter without your concent. What if you had other plans for your own possesions. does someone else has more right over your things then you the owner???? Hum, don't think so.
  • Graffiti people are not really artist.They are just regular people with nothing better to do.Do you really see teachers,doctors,hardworking americans doing this?I don't think so!These so called artist have just given up with society.They should get a real job and have respect for their neighbors plus grow up.
  • It's really sad that the majority of "volunteers" in America are actually "forced labor" provided by community service sentences for petty offences. 850,000 pot arrests at 100 hours of CS each provide 85 million hours of free forced labor in the US each year.Go to a local food bank and see who the "volunteers" are...
  • I won't say much except that graffiti is not vandalism if taken the right way; it is an art.
  • Instead of repressing graffiti almost entirely, here in Europe many cities designated numerous legal painting spots in their territory, so that youths would be more encouraged to develop graffiti as an art form as opposed to tagging everywhere. The result is that graffiti here has evolved into a beautiful, enrichening mural tradition, whereas in NY it's stuck where it was when the repression began: angry people happy to deface in the same old 80's style. Who do you think wastes more money on paint, cops, cameras, etc?
  • You taggers, you ain't artists. Artists don't ruin other people's property. Let me come paint your place, see if you think I'm an artist.
  • Graffiti is not an art. Art is something that enhances. Most graffiti is vandalism (destruction of another's property), and is incredibly ugly. Also, most of it consists of words. Lastly, it gives the landscape a really unkempt, disgusting look of disrepair. If the vandals feel they need an outlet to write words, there are plenty of art programs in community centers that they can join.
  • True art is exposed in art galleries, everything outside is just visual bulling always was sad each time I would see a multi million dollars public building or infrastructure be painted on it. I feel personally cheated and I don't want the buildings that I pay for being painted on it except if you ask my permission for witch the answer would be NO . I was sad to read so many people defend graffiti on that blog. Honestly, I always secretly hoped for a special task force that would shoot robber bullets on offender son sight. And make sure it hurt.
  • on Friday, March 20, 2015 2:06 PM
    It's great to see action being taken against graffiti. I've heard the broken window theory a few times before and I definitely think it could be very true. I also think that when graffiti artists don't think that they can get away with it, they are a lot less likely to commit the crime.
  • Graffiti is an outlet. An out for those who feel compelled to express themselves by any mean necessary. If we design our environment in such a way where "bombers" can focus their desires the problem may be solved. They love smooth, unfenestrated, unmonitored, undefended, safe walls for their efforts. As real estate get ever more tighter in NYC the problem may cure itself in time.
  • The vandal squad is not the same as years ago under the new commanding officer captain Elwood selover he and his cronies ruined the unit and forced all the great officers to retire or move on.