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Tagging Up Denver

The city’s aerosol junkies are in the spotlight.

But first he's got to buff him some walls. In graffiti slang, to buff is to make graffiti disappear by paint, water, rag, even spray can — to wipe it all clean like a classroom eraser at 3 p.m. To be a buffer is to be Rayburn; he's erased more graffiti in Denver than anyone.

At 7 a.m., Monday through Friday, Rayburn and his partner, Joel Martinez, set out from the Denver Department of Public Works facility in a retrofitted white delivery truck. Painted on the side is a large symbol of two hands clasping, the emblem for Denver Partners Against Graffiti. The city program employs twelve "maintenance technicians" who operate six such vehicles. Each is equipped with a power washer, various rollers, brushes and buckets, a variety of chemical solvents, more than a dozen shades of spray paint, and a palette of six base colors, such as yellow, musket brown and viaduct beige. To eliminate hard-to-reach graffiti on billboards, street signs or roofs, the division also has its own cherry picker with a bucket that can extend up to thirty feet.

Each truck has an assigned district, and Rayburn and Martinez cover Capitol Hill and South Broadway, two epicenters for taggers and graffiti artists (as well as stencilers, wheat-pasters, sticker bandits and a more recent trend of paint-drippers). Depending on the difficulty, Rayburn can remove graffiti from more than twenty locations in a single shift — other days, he might eliminate only one.

Members of TKO are ready to write.
Jim J. Narcy
Members of TKO are ready to write.
ERA is "getting up" in Denver's graffiti world.
Jim J. Narcy
ERA is "getting up" in Denver's graffiti world.

"But the [graffiti piece] may be like 3,000 to 5,000 square feet in size," he says. "Like a warehouse, someplace down by the railroad tracks. It's ten feet high, and you might have to bring two or three trucks."

Today, Rayburn's work order lists an apartment building near Ninth Avenue and Sherman Street. He locates the tag in the alleyway on a wall above a dumpster. It says "EOS" in three-foot red letters, and before Rayburn even gets out of the truck, he knows it's going to be a headache. Some surfaces are easier to clean than others; this facade is the most difficult because of the way spray paint becomes embedded in the crags of the yellowish, grooved brick. Plus, it's an east-facing wall, and the tag has been there at least a week.

"It literally gets baked in by the sun," he says. "The longer the paint sits, the harder it is to get off."

He throws open the rear door to the truck and pulls out a container of clear goo known as "Elephant Snot" that will break down the paint molecules so the tag can be blasted off with the power washer. "If this was flat brick, we could go ahead and blast it right away," he explains while watching Martinez roll snot over the tag. "But this is grooved, and we have to wait."

When he began his career as a professional buffer, Rayburn could somewhat decipher the subtext of the tags. That was back in 1989, the year Federico Peña created the city's first maintenance crews devoted exclusively to graffiti removal from city property. They had a couple of trucks and a few employees, with extra labor provided by Denver County Jail inmates or at-risk youth from the local juvenile-detention facility. One of Peña's first tasks for the outfit was to paint over hundreds of yards' worth of long-ignored graffiti murals along the river walls in the Central Platte Valley. Most of what Rayburn remembers removing throughout the early '90s, however, was gang graffiti.

"It was real simple," he says. "Bloods and Crips. West Denver, North Denver, Park Hill. A lot of one-eight-seven's. A lot of rest in peace's. The messages were clear. You knew what it meant."

The communities knew what it meant, too.

"When we first started, the neighborhoods, the associations, were very much involved, because there never was any real function like this from the city before," Rayburn recalls. But as the decade continued, the vandalism persisted. Not only that, it seemed that every time the city responded with anti-graffiti ordinances — such as banning the sale of spray paint to juveniles, or increasing fines for those caught tagging — the crime only rose. In 1991, Rayburn and the buff crew removed an estimated 400,000 square feet of graffiti. By 1997, that amount was up to 1,200,000 square feet.

Mayor Wellington Webb responded to the outcry from residents and business owners in 1998 by convening the first Graffiti Task Force. Citing the often-used phrase "graffiti breeds graffiti," the committee concluded that quick removal was one of the strongest deterrents. They recommended that the city remove the scribblings from consenting owners' residential or commercial property for free. But even after Public Works doubled its graffiti clean-up operation, the stats continued steadily upward. Last year, city crews buffed 3,041,731 square feet of graffiti at a cost of $1 million.

The cost of removal is shouldered by other municipal agencies as well. According to a 2006 citywide graffiti abatement report, both the Parks and Recreation and Traffic Engineering departments spent approximately $200,000 each. The Regional Transportation District shelled out $12,600, while the Denver Housing Authority spent $20,000. And don't forget the $310,000 dropped by Denver Public Schools.

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