The definition of graffiti depends on whom you ask.

Anything scrawled with paint pens, spray paint, markers and even shoe polish on private or city property is blight, according to Debbie DeLopez, a program manager at the city’s Graffiti Blasters. The definition is different for Jenna Johnson, 19, of the South Loop, who sees it as art.

“I do it to make people question the world around them,” said Johnson, who identifies her work with the tags “Ghost” and “Spirit.” “To be curious, to make a statement. I want them to get their own sense of what street art means and what it does for them personally.”

Next year will mark 20 years since Chicago started enforcing its spray paint ban, and DeLopez and the city are continuing to take down what taggers like Johnson put up. In the past six years, instances of graffiti fell from about 173,000 in 2009 to 110,000 in 2012, but then rose again to 137,000 in 2013, according to Graffiti Blasters.

In an effort to discourage the practice, the CTA recently announced it would file civil lawsuits seeking damages from taggers who mark up its property. And in anticipation of a busy summer, Graffiti Blasters will add two more chemical spray trucks and two more painting vans to their fleet.

On a recent Tuesday morning, DeLopez stood at the corner of 31st Street and Homan Avenue and watched as a handful of the more than 42,000 pieces of this year’s reported graffiti were blasted away with water, washed off with chemicals and painted over with white or brown paint.

“Graffiti is bad no matter where it is, and it’s not tolerated,” she said. Most people can’t tell the difference between gang-related tags and unaffiliated art, she said. Its existence can drive down property values and give the appearance of higher crime rates.

Though some businesses and programs—like Graffiti Zone in West Humboldt Park—allow artists to use their bare wall space to display their work, DeLopez stresses Mayor Emanuel’s zero-tolerance policy for the practice. “Permission walls” and “graffiti zones” only encourage more illegal graffiti in those areas, DeLopez said, touting her 21 years on the job.

“I’m careful about using the words ‘artist’ or ‘artistic,’ because I don’t want to glorify what these people do,” she said, referring to anyone who tags without permission. Street artists use tags to identify themselves and claim their work. “If they’re that talented, they should do it where it’s legal or as a job.”

For Nino Rodriguez, 41, of Belmont Cragin, there’s much more nuance to tagging than the city or general public think. From 1984 through the mid-’90s, he developed tags, “TSEL” and “TSELONE,” gaining notoriety for tagging everything from alleys to entire CTA cars. Dotting the city kept him out of gangs for most of his youth, even if it did get him in trouble with the law on a few occasions, he said.

“You pick a name and you put it up everywhere,” he said. “Everyone can see who you are. It’s an art form to me. I put it in the same category as modern art, contemporary art.”

Rodriguez now legally paints murals on businesses that give him permission and uses the talents he’s developed to do commercial work, he said. While he recognizes why the city has taken such a hard stance on the issue, he continues to mentor young graffiti artists looking to hone their tag styles.

“I can’t say it damages property; it’s removable,” he said. “It’s not physically hurting anybody. It might be a visual plague or a blight, but it’s not hurting anybody.”

The threat of arrest, the swift removal of tags and the ban on spray paint isn’t stopping the South Loop’s Johnson. For the past few years, Johnson has hit light poles, walls and abandoned buildings along the Chicago River and in Uptown and the South Loop. She prefers free-handing her distinctive “Ghost” and “Spirit” tags with spray paint, but also has been known to use markers, stickers and paint pens.

She buys all of her supplies online or in the suburbs, where she also goes tagging. The police have stopped her twice, but it just makes the rush of spreading her “Ghost” tag more satisfying.

“It’s a lot of adrenaline and a lot of paranoia at first,” she said. “But I realized pretty quickly it’s pretty easy to hide. I kind of stopped being afraid, but the adrenaline remains.”

Johnson said despite the graffiti’s negative connotations, she hopes people look a little harder.

“We’re doing it to get a message across,” she said. “Gangs use it to mark territory. People like Banksy do it as a political statement. Me? I do it to intrigue people, to get them curious about the world around them. There’s some pretty ugly parts of the city I think look better with paint on them.” 

 

Anti-graffiti crew

Chicago’s Graffiti Blasters was established in 1993 under Mayor Richard M. Daley. Its goal: quickly eliminating graffiti throughout the city.

Under the direction of Mayor Emanuel’s administration, the crews clean areas with the highest concentration of graffiti first. They then systematically work their way outward, cleaning up unreported tags and graffiti along the way.

The blasters aim to respond to all complaints reported to 311 as well as their office within 14 days.

In 2014, the city allocated nearly $3.2 million to the program. It employs a fleet of 12 trucks that blast graffiti with a solution of baking soda and water, 11 paint vans that cover the marks up, and two chemical trucks that pretreat graffiti on porous surfaces such as limestone. 

 

Chicago graffiti by the numbers

Despite spray paint bans, the threat of arrest and the Graffiti Blasters program, taggers and graffiti writers are still hitting surfaces throughout the city. Instances of graffiti reported to 311 have declined over the past six years, but not precipitously. Here’s a breakdown of the numbers.

2009

Reports: 173,024

Removals: 172,989

2010

Reports: 161,813

Removals: 161,336

2011

Reports: 137,077

Removals: 137,475

2012

Reports: 110,000

Removals: 108,830

2013

Reports: 136,939

Removals: 137,466

2014

Reports: 42,637

Removals: 41,920

If removals exceed reports received in a year, the Blasters identified/removed more graffiti than was reported to them. Data courtesy of Graffiti Blasters