The writing is on the wall...and the fences and Dumpsters, too.

By Doug Snover

We’ve all seen it. Nasty words hastily scrawled on an alley fence. The hopelessly romantic “I love So-and-so” painted near the schoolyard. Or initials spray painted on the side of a garbage dumpster. Occasionally, a crude work of art on the wall of a convenience market. Or some indecipherable symbol that we worry might be a sign that gangs are moving into our neighborhoods.

In other words, graffiti.

Tim O’Neil sees it every day. And for 10 hours a day, four days a week, he hauls out his sprayer, mixes the paints he carries in a trailer behind his city of Chandler pickup truck, and covers it up--usually within 24 hours of getting a complaint on Chandler’s Graffiti Hotline.

It’s his job. And however dedicated the graffiti “artists” and taggers working in O’Neil’s part of the Kyrene Corridor, he is equally determined. It’s his job and he’s paid to erase or otherwise cover up what the taggers have wrought.

O’Neil, 46, a former sign painter and cabinetmaker, recently talked with Wrangler News about his unusual job.

Standing in the parking lot of a Circle K, he offered a tour of his “office”--a small trailer loaded with a large water tank, a handful of 10-gallon paint buckets loaded with browns and tans and other earth tones, and a commercial paint sprayer that has seen a lot of use.

He also showed off his map book, a binder filled with maps of every Chandler street and alley that O’Neil uses to keep track of his travels.

Among recent stops has been Warner Ranch II, where taggers hit several entry walls. However, he emphasizes, this area doesn’t represent a major “hot spot” and any of the few instances that do occur are quickly discovered and repaired.

O’Neil’s regular work clothes are simple shorts and a light shirt, topped by a wide-brim hat to protect him from the sun. Occasionally, however, he dons a special “Handy the Octopus” costume to give talks to local schoolchildren about the problem of graffiti.

“The kids really seem to like him,” O’Neil said of the “Handy the Octopus” character.

“I painted my whole life,” O’Neil said. “I was doing sign work and cabinet work. We’d just moved down here in 2000 and my wife was looking through the paper and saw this job advertised. She saw the mascot and said that’s perfect for you.”

He is a friendly, talkative man of average height, slender and fit, whose voice did not lose its Nebraska accent in the years he spent in Seattle before moving to the Valley five years ago.

O’Neil doesn’t spend a lot of time wondering about the graffiti he sees. When he comes across gang taggings, he photographs it with a digital camera that he carries in his truck and reports it to the Police Department. Although he works in conjunction with local police, he is a civilian, and not one who is into the psychology of graffiti and the people he labels “serial taggers.”

Although you might expect graffiti to increase toward the end of the school year and in the summer, O’Neil said he has not noticed an upswing tied to the school year. “If it is, it’s just a mark on playground equipment,” he said.

Nor is the graffiti he sees predominately gang-related. “The first two years I did it, the gang stuff was very popular,” he said. “Now I probably have about 30 percent gang stuff. The rest is the ‘I love Mandy’ stuff.”

Right now, for instance, O’Neil estimates there are three serial taggers working his turf. These are people--“I’m assuming they are guys, although who knows, girls can be bad, too”--who scrawl the same thing in every location they hit, usually their initials or nicknames.

“There are some kids who just keep tagging,” he said. One repeatedly scrawls ALAR, with or without the addendum CR. “I’ve probably been doing his stuff for a year,” O’Neil said.

Rarely is the graffiti clever or artistic, he said. “Most of the graffiti is just quick knock-out stuff.”

The most artistic graffiti he has seen is on railroad cars, and O’Neil said he does not know if it is done locally or by graffiti bandits in other states.

Either way, he has stopped repainting railroad cars “because I was using a lot of paint.”

That’s a concern because Chandler provides its graffiti removal service free of charge to the victims of reckless taggers. The city pays O’Neil’s salary and provides the paint he uses to remove graffiti even on private property.

He uses three to five gallons of paint on a typical day. “There’s never a charge to any citizen. Never has been,” he said.

Although taggers seem to want to express themselves by painting their messages on other peoples’ property, they rarely come out of the woodwork when O’Neil arrives to remove the previous night’s graffiti.

“Maybe once,” he said. “I had a kid come up to me (as he was removing graffiti) and tell me he was one of my customers.”

O’Neil sees his job as making graffiti go away, as simple as that. He strives to blend his paint just right to match the existing color of he wall or fence or dumpster that has been tagged.

“I’ve worked in the sign business, so I’ve mixed about every color there is,” he said. “I try to make it look like it’s not an afterthought. That’s my goal.”

The Chandler Graffiti Hotline is (480) 782-4322. In Tempe, it is (480) 350-8384.