Street-cleaning crews last year removed nearly as many graffiti tags in downtown Dayton as they did in the four previous years combined during what some leaders described as a vandalism spree.
The entire city has seen a big increase in illegal graffiti since the start of the pandemic.
“They stormed not only downtown but other places with a vengeance,” said Sandy Gurdorf, who is retiring from her role as president of the Downtown Dayton Partnership.
While some people may consider graffiti a form of street art, many property owners and police officials say it is a destructive and costly form of mischief that hurts property values and people’s views of the urban center.
Downtown ambassadors removed about 2,335 graffiti tags in 2022, which was a 330% increase from 2021, according to the Downtown Dayton Partnership.
Ambassador crews removed nearly as many tags last year as they did between 2018 and 2021.
No data is available for this year, but the problem is not going away.
Downtown ambassadors pick up litter, patrol the streets, power wash the sidewalks and remove or paint over graffiti and tags. The ambassador program is paid for by the Downtown Dayton Partnership.
Gudorf said it’s unclear if one individual or a group of people were responsible for the large increase in graffiti tags last year.
But the same tags kept showing up on traffic signs, fire hydrants, buildings, light and utility poles and other parts of the urban environment.
“They went and tagged everything they could find,” she said.
Meanwhile, city of Dayton staff removed about 15,910 graffiti tags across the city in 2022, or about 18% more than in 2021, according to public works data.
Dayton has been cleaning up much larger amounts of graffiti since the start of the pandeimc.
City workers jettisoned about 14,150 tags in 2020, which was a 60% increase from 2019.
Many tags can be removed using cleaning products, including one called “Elephant Snot.” But larger tags on the sides of buildings are harder to get rid of and often must be painted over.
On Friday, Angel Blanton, special projects ambassador, painted over a tag on the Fidelity building on South Main Street in downtown.
Ambassadors have painted over multiple tags on the side of the Fidelity building and neighboring buildings this year, and Blanton said graffiti removal and cover-up is a constant need downtown.
“Last year was really bad,” she said, adding that graffiti activities downtown have been “steady” this year.
Through August, downtown ambassadors removed about 725 tags, while Dayton’s public works department has taken care of about 9,400 tags citywide.
Blanton said wrapping downtown’s utility boxes with artwork was a good decision that has really paid off.
Taggers typically respect the artwork on the boxes and do not deface the equipment.
Similarly, some downtown businesses and property owners have painted murals on the sides of their properties, which also keeps “graffiti artists” away.
One of the best ways to prevent graffiti is by getting rid of it as quickly as possible, Gudorf said.
“We try to get every single tag down within 24 hours,” Gudorf said. “It’s just kind of common policy that you get it down right away so those who (are responsible) can’t see their work.”
Some graffiti is colorful and playful and features cartoons and other characters. But some tags and graffiti say racist, homophobic or misogynistic things.
In June, someone spray painted a racist word, Nazi swastikas and curse words on the side of Thai 9, a Thai restaurant in the Oregon District, according to a Dayton police report.
Spray paint was applied to the property’s walls, windows, doors and signs.
A security camera captured the incident, but the suspect was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and his or her face could not be seen.
The owner told police he believed this was done by a disgruntled employee who was fired the previous day.
Dayton police Lt. John Riegel said the police department needs the public’s help to combat graffiti crimes.
“It can be hard to catch the people committing these crimes because it only takes a short amount of time to do and is usually done under the cover of darkness,” he said. “If a community member sees someone or has reasonable suspicion that someone may be doing graffiti they can call police.”
The city is spending about $46,000 annually to remove graffiti; most of that is personnel expenses.
Graffiti sends the wrong message that downtown is unsafe and struggles with crime and no one cares about the urban center, officials said.
“Graffiti could be seen as a sign that our downtown is not safe,” Gudorf said.
Gudorf said there are many legal outlets for people who like to do street art, and defacing other people’s property without their permission is wrong, destructive and harmful.