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.
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
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”
“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
“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
He uses three to five gallons of paint
on a typical day. “There’s never a
charge to any citizen. Never has been,”
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
“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
Chandler Graffiti Hotline is (480)
782-4322. In Tempe, it is (480)