'War on graffiti’ in Surrey's Clayton

Bill Reid, executive director of the Cloverdale District Chamber of Commerce, inspects graffiti damage done to a mural at a Fraser Highway business. - JENNIFER LANG PHOTO
Bill Reid, executive director of the Cloverdale District Chamber of Commerce, inspects graffiti damage done to a mural at a Fraser Highway business.
— image credit: JENNIFER LANG PHOTO

It’s a sunny winter morning in the fast-growing residential enclave of Clayton, where Bill Reid is outlining the Cloverdale Chamber of Commerce’s newest initiative.

For the past six weeks, the chamber has been waging an anti-graffiti campaign in the Hillcrest and Clayton neighbourhoods, in concert with the Clayton Crossing and Hillcrest shopping centres.

Reid, executive director of the chamber, estimates about $4,000 has been spent erasing graffiti in the area. The aim is to remove graffiti as soon as it’s reported, returning as necessary to deter vandals from striking again.

It’s an expansion of an existing initiative in downtown Cloverdale, where the chamber and the Cloverdale Business Improvement Association have long aimed for a zero-tolerance policy against graffiti.

“You have to be on top of it all the time,” says Reid. After a building has been tagged, the graffiti is erased, removed or painted over.

It’s only been two days since the latest clean up, when the handiwork of vandals was removed from 22 separate locations and already new tags have sprung up to replace what’s been erased.

He’s about to point out a recent victory – a large, white storage container located in a shady corner of the Clayton Crossing mall parking lot, when he interrupts himself.

“Oh, they got it!” he spits. “Look at that. Since last night,” he trails off dejectedly. The container – which had just been painted to conceal graffiti – is covered in giant orange bubble letters written in an unsteady hand.

“The trouble is, most of it looks like garbage,” Reid says, pulling ahead to continue the tour. best, graffiti is regarded as a form of artistic expression, reflecting the modern urban experience. At worst, graffiti contributes to an atmosphere of neglect and decay, providing a breeding ground for property crime.

“It creates a feeling that the community doesn’t care,” Reid says. “Once that happens, people start putting litter on every corner, and people start putting old fridges out and stuff.”

That’s why the chamber is offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who catches someone in the act.

He admits graffiti can be a beautiful, if misunderstood art form. Sadly, the examples – known as tags – along Reid’s route demonstrate nothing of that kind of promise.

“They’ll all be the same,” Reid says, referring to the fact that a tag represents the name of the individual who created it – young individuals who want to leave their mark.

“They want to be noticed and let everyone know he’s around.”

Once pointed out, tags seem to be everywhere in these otherwise smart new streets and cul-de-sacs – on power poles, utility cabinets, post and mail boxes, lamp posts, curbs, fences, and walls. Tags are even scrawled across realtor signs and residential development billboards along Fraser Highway.

Until Reid took a tour of the area, he had “no idea how bad it was.”

The problem came to his attention at a public consultation meeting on nuisance issues and community engagement hosted by the Surrey RCMP’s District 4 office (Cloverdale/Port Kells). Irwin Cohen, director of the University of the Fraser Valley’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice led a facilitated discussion, where he advised participants it’s important to “sweat the small stuff”.

District 4 commander Staff/Sgt. Shirley Steele says the RCMP weren’t getting many complaints about graffiti in the Clayton/Hillcrest area, but she’s pleased the chamber of commerce has taken the lead in launching a clean-up drive.

She is a firm believer in the broken window theory; low-level crime needs to be dealt with at an early stage, when it’s easier to deal with, she says.

“We do ask people to engage in the community and care for things as small as litter and graffiti,” she said.

Jen Temple of the Trademark Group of Companies, manages Hillcrest Village Shopping Centre, and says the mall spent $2,000 combating graffiti in 2010, and $3,000 in 2011.

Zero tolerance, she says, sends out a clear message, and frustrates the culprits.

“They want people to see it. If it’s gone, then there’s no reason to continue.”

She advocates a restorative justice approach where the culprit is forced to reckon with and remedy the damage done by helping clean up graffiti.

She applauds the chamber initiative. “I think it’s great,” she says. “It’s teamwork.”

Along with offering the $1,000 reward, Reid says the Cloverdale Chamber of Commerce is also working with the City of Surrey and B.C. Hydro to cover more utility cabinets with colourful vinyl wraps, which deter graffiti and vandalism.

About 10 high-profile, frequently-targeted cabinets have been identified as candidates.

Meanwhile, the battle continues.

“This is a war on graffiti,” he says.

“We’re going to win it. There’s two or three deliberate people we’ve got to catch. You catch them, the problem is solved.”

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