Erasing eyesores

Michael Allen, a volunteer with the City of Charleston Graffiti Abatement Program, paints over graffiti Friday on the back of a vacant Folly Road building.

Brad Nettles

It's not even noon on Friday and the heat is already as overbearing as some of the graffiti on the wall.

Michael Allen ignores the 90-degree temperatures and dips a roller into a bucket behind a vacant grocery store on Folly Road, covering the black scrawling with white paint.

Allen is one of a handful of volunteers in a city program that will clean much of the graffiti for free. He's volunteered 82 hours since April and already has seen just about everything, including evidence of real ability.

"There's some talented people out here — if they would just focus on something else besides people's storefronts," he said.

Sometimes the writing is crude, sometimes it's pretty, but most of it is unintelligible "tagging." Police say only a small percentage is gang-related.

But no matter what the reason for the graffiti, none of it is allowed, and in the end, the victim often is stuck with the bill for cleaning it up.

Keeping up with the graffiti can be as tough as interpreting it. Officials said they've been to some sites multiple times, sometimes in the exact place.

The city is looking for more volunteers to help cover as much ground — and graffiti — as possible. They want more people like Allen, a Charleston resident who started volunteering twice a week as a way to keep busy after his job was "downsized" by a local shipping company.

"I wanted to give something back to the community," he said. "I had some time on my hands."

Ultimately, it's up to the victim to clean the eyesore from their property, but the city offers free cleanup and pressure-washing as a public service, Charleston police Cpl. Ed Robinson said.

"We work with the victims to try and get it done," Robinson said. "We try not to victimize them any more."

The program does come with some caveats. The city has only five colors, and because they don't repaint the entire building, they may be unable to match the color perfectly. They also restrict cleanup to the bottom floor.

Nehemiah Clarke, a part-time code enforcement officer who helps oversee the graffiti cleanup team, said a lot of homeowners and businesses have taken advantage of the program.

"We save homeowners plenty of money by doing this," he said.

Robinson said most of the graffiti is done by teenagers or people in their 20s trying to "tag" as many buildings as possible with their sign.

Last week, police officers accused a 23-year-old man and a 20-year-old woman of graffiti vandalism after they were caught tagging a Bogard Street building. The woman had a paint-tip marker in her purse. They face a maximum sentence of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted for a first offense.

"Most of them are wayward street artists who don't realize what they're doing is a detriment to society," Robinson said.