“A few days in jail isn’t the worst thing,” says CLAW, a graffiti artist who’s been arrested three times in fifteen years for expressing herself on other people’s property. “But last time I got picked up, I saw a poster in the precinct, ‘All graffiti arrests to be reported to the Vandals Squad.’ I said, ‘Oh, no.’ ”
CLAW’s new nemesis: GHOST, or Graffiti Habitual Offender Suppression Team, the shock troops in Bloomberg’s latest campaign to clean up the town. “Some areas of the city, graffiti is taken for granted,” says Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. “We want that to stop.”
So Kelly has combined experienced units into a much-feared Citywide Vandals Task Force, of which GHOST is a key player. The force made 34 graffiti arrests in January. GHOST is quick to get warrants to go through suspects’ computers. And they’ve compiled “The Book,” with the mugs and tags of around 70 most-wanted graffiti artists.
On a recent night, the GHOSTs went hunting. Outside their Brooklyn base, an elevated D train cut a gleaming silver line. It was going to stay gleaming. “The trains are the holy grail for vandals,” said Sergeant Robert Barrow, getting into the team’s van. “They know we’re watching. Only foreigners go for them.” German- tourist taggers cut out precise holes in train-yard fences, he added.
The team scanned the wall along the Prospect Expressway. “This guy is rockin’ it.” blurted Sergeant Barrow, spotting fresh tags by an artist named ACID. “I take it as a personal affront when someone I’ve arrested writes again. I’ll go talk to him.” That means arrest.
First stop was the Cuts, a Bay Ridge ravine where the N train runs above ground. It’s a “habitual location,” but nothing was happening. Too cold perhaps. “Spray paint freezes, except Montana, a German paint marketed for graffiti,” said officer Nino Navarra. The squad glanced over crude marks—Mexican stuff. Not their thing; the info would be passed to the gang unit.
Next, the team hit a Long Island City building whose owner encourages graffiti writers to paint the façade. That’s legal. But the work spills over to other property. “This isn’t art. It’s a cancer that spreads,” said Officer Eddie Segui, who used to write on trains himself.
A call came in; Lieutenant Jeffrey Schneider had an arrest. They went to Corona. At the precinct, Dorian, 17, was in lockup with a slew of vice collars. He was busted for stenciling yellow ducks—some panda bears, too—along the L.I.E., as well as a cryptic epigraph at a Burger King. Someone called in the tip. It was the unit’s first arrest resulting from a new reward system. (“Snitches get stitches,” warns CLAW about such compensation.)
Dorian isn’t hard-core, but “he’s not a good kid. He’ll do it again,” said Schneider. “You know, his room was full of ducks.”