| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES Global positioning systems (GPS), digital photography and computer databases are joining the humble paint can as U.S. cities battle to obliterate graffiti and catch its shadowy perpetrators.
"In the past, authorities had no way of keeping track of who was doing the damage in their city," said Tim Kephart, the president of Los Angeles-based Graffiti Tracker, whose systems are being bought by a growing number of American cities.
"Paint it out as quickly as possible -- that was the strategy. But you'll never be able to outpaint a tagger because what he can do with $1 can of spray paint is far more than a big clean-up truck can keep up with," Kephart said.
Graffiti Tracker takes pictures of graffiti before it is painted over, using GPS cameras that record the date, time and exact location. The company analyzes the graffiti, for example checking whether it is gang-related, and stores the pictures in its database.
Police use the information to track or predict where a particular tagger will strike next. Once caught, they have evidence to prosecute for a string of offenses.
Clean-up crews in Los Angeles County -- where graffiti ranges from gang scrawls on lamp posts to walls of bold color regarded by some as underground art -- painted over more than 40 million square feet of graffiti last year, according to authorities.
Kephart, a Los Angeles area criminal justice graduate, says 20 cities in California, Nevada and Nebraska have bought his system in the past 12 months and he expects to double that number in the next year.
Pico Rivera -- a city of 65,000 residents east of Los Angeles -- has made 60 arrests since buying the system nine months ago to boost its $300,000 annual anti-graffiti program.
Two teens convicted of felony criminal damage have been ordered to pay $22,000 in restitution to the city. "The word is fast getting out there that this is not a good place to tag because they are going to get you," said Pico Rivera police department spokesman Bob Spencer.
Authorities attribute much of the graffiti to gangs. the city of Los Angeles alone has an estimated 720 street gangs with some 40,000 members.
Others say gang graffiti -- used to mark territory, threaten rivals or commemorate dead members -- represents only a tiny proportion of the tagging problem.
Whatever the source authorities regard graffiti as vandalism that brings down neighborhoods and angers law-abiding residents.
"Just because you have the talent and the ability to make it look really awesome, doesn't mean it's legal when you do it on someone else's property without their permission," said Kephart.