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Back Bay neighbors draw a line on graffiti

Stiff punishment of sprayers urged

John Wadlington makes way through Public Alley 440 in the Back Bay. He and his group of his neighbors are working to clean up Graffiti in the Back Bay.
By Maria Cramer
Globe Staff / August 21, 2006

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They strike at night. While Back Bay sleeps, the vandals creep around the parked Volvos, Audis, and Lexus sport utility vehicles and toward the elegant brick buildings. In white, black, and neon-green paint, they leave their mark in the alleyways. By morning, when dwellers of this historic neighborhood wake up and head to their cars, they find out who has been on their property. Zorg, Utah, and Des are the names of graffiti vandals whose very mention causes residents around Newbury Street and Commonwealth Avenue to shudder.

On Sept. 1, one of the neighborhood's biggest menaces -- Gonzo, whom police identified as Michael Beck, a 20-year-old Quincy car washer -- is scheduled to arrive in court for a pretrial hearing.

Back Bay residents, who have accused Beck of spray-painting at least 68 properties, said they will be ready with photographs of his alleged handiwork and letters to the judge from dozens of people who say they are his victims.

These Back Bay neighbors have united, and they are helping the prosecution by gathering victim-impact statements -- the impassioned letters normally submitted during the sentencing of accused killers, drunk drivers, and drug dealers -- from the people who say Beck spray-painted their property.

The group calls itself the Graffiti NABBers, short for Neighborhood Association of the Back Bay, and their goal is to ensure a stiff penalty for Beck and send a message to others who spray graffiti that the crime will be taken seriously, said Kathleen Alexander, one of NABBers cochairwomen.

``It's a crying shame," said Alexander, a Back Bay realtor. ``To me, it's truly a desecration of the whole district."

Beck could not be reached for comment, but his lawyer, Jay Odunukwe, said his client has pleaded not guilty.

``No evidence has been presented to the defense as to how they [discovered] what they allege he did," he said.

Police arrested Beck in May when officers patrolling the neighborhood say they spotted him and another man, John Michael Mooney, 23, of Quincy, walking out of an alleyway onto Dartmouth Street. The officers began questioning the men, and Beck told one of them, ``I have a marker in my pocket," according to police reports.

Police said they found cans of spray paint on both men, who were each charged with vandalism and destruction of property. Destruction of property is punishable by up to two years in a county house of correction, said Jake Wark, spokesman for Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, whose office is prosecuting.

One Back Bay property manager, Peter Antell, 58, has submitted a letter of impact to the court regarding the case. Though his property on Newbury Street has not been targeted by Gonzo, it has been sprayed three times this year. He said he decided to write a letter describing the frustration of finding graffiti on his building, the cost of removing it, and his fear that graffiti taggers -- the vandals' word for what they do, which has been adopted by their victims -- could hurt the image of the Back Bay and attract other criminals.

``It is not a petty crime to paint one's tag on a brick wall of another person's property," he wrote the court in a two-page letter. ``It is an act of violence against the community."

Antell said he would welcome a guilty verdict and prison time for Beck and Mooney.

``If Mr. Beck is prosecuted and prosecuted in a serious way . . . the message being sent is that this is not a crime that the community is going to tolerate," he said in a telephone interview.

But to people who think of graffiti as urban art, that approach is heavy-handed .

Caleb Neelon, a Cambridge artist who was curator of a graffiti exhibit at the New Art Center in Newton in March, said that jailing taggers would not stop others from spraying graffiti.

``To send a task force like that against a young person in that position is a bit Draconian," said Neelon, 30, who has been spraying graffiti since he was 14. ``If they don't want graffiti in that neighborhood, a good thing to do would be to clean it."

That is one of the NABBers' goals, said Anne Swanson, the group's other chairwoman, who is trying to get permission from hundreds of Back Bay residents to let city workers go through the neighborhood and wash off the graffiti.

``This is not about revenge," she said. ``We really want to get it cleaned up. . . . We have higher standards for our community."

Until then, some residents have taken to cleaning the graffiti themselves.

Almost every day, John Wadlington, an anesthesiologist who lives on Commonwealth Avenue, totes a bucket and scrub brush around his street and cleans off smaller markings he finds on lightposts and walls.

``To me, Back Bay is my garden, and I try to remove what I consider unsightly," he said.

But to Boston graffiti enthusiasts, the Back Bay has been a tagger's mecca since the 1980s, when the medium took hold in the city, said Neelon, who has painted his graffiti name, Sonik, on streets in Brazil, Nepal, and Denmark. He declined to say whether he had tagged alleyways in the Back Bay.

The commercial neighborhood attracts thousands of tourists and shoppers, which makes it attractive to taggers, who want people to see their tags. Tagging a Back Bay wall is a way of inhabiting a neighborhood that is beyond the financial reach of many young people, Neelon said.

The Back Bay alleyways ``hold a special place for generations of young people who are . . . not in any position to own the buildings," he said. ``In a certain sense, these are all shared urban spaces."

Maria Cramer can be reached at mcramer@globe.com.