How a guy who knows a guy gave a high-tech, graffiti-fighting tool to the masses.
Thursday, February 23, 2012
A Friday close to midnight in January, one of those nights when the mist hangs low over Salinas and the city feels so damn quiet and clean and full of possibility, I’m walking down the dark alley behind the Greyhound station in Oldtown with First Fridays Art Walk founder Trish Sullivan. We’ve left her gallery and cultural-tourism center on Main Street, and she’s taking me to see a well-hidden secret: painter Marek Lipowski’s live-work studio tucked into a tiny, two-room space near Rosita’s Armory Cafe. I’ve admired his dark and broody work in Sullivan’s gallery; she wants me to meet him on the premise that all the despondent Poles in Monterey County should know each other.
As we pass behind Rollick’s Specialty Coffee, two boys dressed in black hoodies, black pants and ball caps pulled down across their faces fly across the low-slung rooftop. They leap gracefully over the side, dangle by their arms off the edge, bounce off the garbage cans below and scramble into a car that has come to a screeching stop where the alley meets Gabilan Street.
I look at Sullivan, she looks at me and it’s a classic what-the-hell-was-that moment. Then we both look up and see it: fresh paint, the beginnings of what would have been an enormous tag on the wall between Rollick’s and the adjacent Halltree Antique Mall.
Judging by the paint all over that part of the alley, it wasn’t their first tag of the night. As we round the corner from Gabilan back toward Main Street, the car that spirited the boys away is rounding the corner at Alisal Street to drop them off once again.
Apparently, it’s not their last tag of the night.
If only I had known there’s an app for that.
This isn’t a story on the merits or detriments of tagging, or how the thoughtful use of color and design sensibility have made rail car art into fine art in the East Bay, or how the work of famed street artists like Banksy and the late Keith Haring is evocative of the ancients who put paint to wall in the Cave of Swimmers in the Gilf Kebir. (Google it.)
This is, however, a story of how a Salinas City Council member ended up knowing a guy who knows a guy who develops graffiti-fighting apps for a company that develops graffiti-proof paints and coatings – and how that councilman reached into his own pocket to register that app and give residents of every district something they can actually use.
Councilman Steve McShane had a connection with app developer Ryan Tate: They both went to Cal Poly-SLO. A mutual friend was describing Tate’s work to McShane, who knew his district specifically – and the city as a whole – has a big tagging problem on its hands. (See story, p. 20.)
Numbers bear that out. Republic Services, the city’s graffiti-eradication contractor, painted over 22,300 square feet of graffiti and tags in McShane’s District 3 during the fourth quarter of 2011 alone. They also painted over more than 68,000 square feet of graffiti throughout the city during that same time.
Most everyone agrees: Republic Services is very responsive when they get called about a graffiti problem. But they don’t get calls about every problem.
Frankly, a lot of people don’t even know there’s a number to call.
“We were talking about how government could be more accessible, and more importantly, how do we capture the twentysomethings and thirtysomethings and give them better, faster government,” McShane says. “The process by which someone can file a complaint is so in need of a makeover, and this app is the perfect makeover.”
The app, from the dully named company App-Order.com, is branded MyDistrict3. Armed with an iPhone or a phone operating off the Android platform, a user can snap a picture of a tag; the app automatically geotags the location, the user can add a voice note or text note and with the push of the send button, it goes straight to McShane’s inbox and on to Republic Services.
The app was in beta-testing for a few months and went live about three weeks ago. McShane says he paid a couple of hundred dollars to register the app in the Android and iPhone app stores, and it’s free for users to download and use. Tate, meanwhile, says App-Order.com doesn’t need to make money off the app because it’s a one-off service for the company Graffiti Protective Coatings, App-Order’s Los Angeles-based parent. About 100 cities across the country are using the same tag-and-report app.
McShane’s council compatriot, Tony Barrera, bristled at the idea that an app that can and should be used by the whole city has been branded with District 3. At a Jan. 30 meeting of the city’s Graffiti Task Force, where about 40 graffiti-weary residents and business owners gathered, he let that irritation show. What affects McShane’s district affects the entire city – and that goes double for the East Side, he said.
The attendees agreed, but took their weariness a step further. One East Side resident reported a multi-day battle with the U.S. Postal Service to get them to remove a “slap tag,” a sticker (in this case) bearing a racial epithet, that had been slapped on to a government-owned mailbox. Another resident, Todd Niles, says he wakes up early during the week to remove graffiti in the West Alisal area before heading off to work. There’s a slight air of vigilantism in the air: People are clearly fed up.
McShane heard the message. He’s been working on the Graffiti Task Force, Barrera and at least one other councilmember are interested in adapting the app to their own districts, and the city’s I.T. department is now looking to roll it out citywide.
“You don’t have to be a resident of District 3 to use it right now,” McShane points out. “And people are using it for more than just graffiti reporting. They’re using it to record and report code-enforcement issues of all types, from abandoned vehicles to overgrown weeds.”
In Salinas, in the past three weeks since it went live, about 100 people have downloaded the app and have sent 100 complaints to McShane to be forwarded on.
In Silicon Valley-speak, it’s a paradigm-shifting win-win-win.
Except for me. I have a Blackberry, and there’s just no app for that, at least not yet.
But now that I know there’s a number to call, I better decide: The next time boys fly across the rooftops, do I call it?