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By Matthew Monks
And while the 104th Precinct is out to crack down on graffiti vandals - it made 11 arrests in June alone - teens like Ben, whose name was changed for this story, illustrate the difficult task law enforcement officials face.
Sitting in Juniper Park on a recent sunny afternoon, the chubby, dark-haired boy described tagging as just another teenage pastime, like going to the movies or playing ball in the park.
He shrugs off the notion that it may be a serious crime, costly or even wrong.
Spray paint and wide-tipped pens - the tools of graffiti vandals - are no more than an antidote to boredom, he said, giving teens with time to kill something to do.
"Someone just calls up and they're like, 'you want to go bombing? You want to go smash?'" Ben said, lapsing into slang to describe the activity. "'Let's go bashing - there's nothing to do.'"
Take the last time he went out tagging last month. Ben said he had stayed up till 3 a.m. watching porno in his mother's living room when boredom crept in.
"I said, 'Hey, none of the good stuff's on' so I just went outside," he said. He had no plans to deface the neighborhood. It just kind of happened.
"I had two markers on me - nobody's out. It's late at night," Ben said, so he figured why not throw up a couple of tags? He spent the next five minutes using black and silver pens to scrawl PEST on stop signs and light posts along 77th Street.
The night was far less destructive than other sprees, he said.
About six months ago, Ben said he was with a graffiti crew named FYN.
He would go out between midnight and 1 a.m. with groups of 10 to 15 teens, spray painting storefronts, highway overpasses, train tracks - anything that is clean and visible - with giant bubble letters.
Ben said he went on two dozen such rampages.
Does he worry that he broke the law or caused thousands of dollars in property damages?
"I don't really care," he said.
Business owners can just paint over the marks, he said, and he figures the city is rich enough to replace public property like street signs.
Besides, he said, "as long as people can still see the stop sign when people are driving ... it's all right."
But that's not the way residents and law enforcement see it.
"Graffiti vandalism is a plague," Queens District Attorney Richard Brown said last year. "It attacks our view, blights our environment and erodes our quality of life. We are resolutely determined to wipe it out."
And a boroughwide effort is underway to do that just. Queens North Police Chief James Tuller announced last month that precincts were compiling most-wanted lists of the top five graffiti tags in their areas.
In the 104th Precinct, a graffiti officer was appointed earlier this year to deal specifically with the problem.
Officer Jackie Markowski said she has been conducting sting operations on popular graffiti sites and stores that illegally sell wide-tipped markers, which are restricted to customers 18 or older.
The precinct has made 26 arrests so far this year for graffiti, 14 of which carried felony charges because the suspect was charged with causing more than $250 in damage. Of the 11 graffiti arrests in June, only four of the suspects were over age 16, she said.
"It's taken very seriously," Markowski said. "If someone is caught making graffiti, they will be given an arrest record. They will be taken to court. There's no more slap on the wrist and go home."
Reach reporter Matthew Monks by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 156.
©2004 Community Newspaper Group
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