A one-woman graffiti fighting army at work in Berkeley

By Linda Hemmila

Once upon a time, Jane Tierney went to art school, but now she tackles art of a different nature.

Tierney is a one-woman graffiti fighting army. She regularly cleans fences and buildings around the Thousand Oaks neighborhood in Berkeley where she lives, and also patrols the shops and mailboxes in the retail corridor of Solano Avenue looking for graffiti and tags to remove.

Once a week, Tierney, who is the president of the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association, loads up her supplies and walks her neighborhood. Armed with spray paint and cleaners, she’s on the look-out for graffiti and tags which, she says, have escalated in the area over the past few years.

“I started collecting different colors of paint and cleaners — the kind that you have to wear gloves to use. They smell really awful. Sometimes I have get businesses to close their doors while I’m working,” Tierney said.

All this purging began back in 2006. “The area behind the old Milo building was especially bad,” said Tierney. “The Milo people were trying to do a good thing, but they would let the animals go anywhere. Dogs were peeing behind the building which was really rundown, and then the graffiti started.”

Tierney says the new owner of the building has put in landscaping and done some cleaning, so that area is not as hard-hit as it was before. “The owner put up some lights and now it looks well cared-for so the taggers don’t bother it as much.”

Recently, the alleyway where the Rosebud gallery is located [on Solano at Fresno] was hit hard. “It was covered in foul language and had a lot of damage. The windows of the gallery were also covered. It must have cost a fortune to fix,” said Tierney.

Over the years, graffiti artists also started targeting mailboxes, shops and fences, leaving lots of unsightly spray-painted marks in their wake. Calls to the city for assistance left Tierney unsatisfied.

“The guy we talked to basically just laughed at us. I was shocked. The problem is so small here compared to the other communities and other things he deals with, it just didn’t seem like that big of a problem to him I guess.”

Tierney points out that retail owners are responsible for cleaning their own buildings, but other things, such as mailboxes, are often left to gather more tags. Older citizens who either physically can’t get out to clean up the mess on their homes, or who don’t know what to do about it, also receive help from Tierney who doesn’t want the tags to linger and attract more artwork.

“There was this house on Ensenada which was hit. The couple were in bed and heard spray paint. They found their garage door and many of the fences on the street were covered in graffiti,” Tierney said.

Mailboxes are a favorite target of local artists, and one of the things Tierney spends much of her time on. “The post office actually gave me the paint and stickers to fix the boxes. They simply didn’t have the funds to do it,” she said. Tierney also says she has expanded her walks to include areas of Marin Avenue. “The mailboxes get it really badly right there,” she said.

Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, spokesperson for Berkeley, says the city does have code enforcement officers who deal with graffiti, but it depends on where the graffiti or tags are. “We clean up graffiti in public places like parks and street signs. We don’t use city funds to clean up private property,” she said.

Tierney says she spends about six hours a week doing her part to clean up what appears in her neighborhood, but wishes others would join in. “The problem is if there is a little graffiti it can lead to a lot of graffiti really fast. People need to take ownership of the their neighborhood. I have, but I don’t want to do it alone.”

Asked who she thinks the taggers and graffiti artists might be, Tierney says she has a theory on who is behind much of it. “It’s not who you think it is. It’s not miscreants. It’s high-school kids, many of them girls.”

Clunies-Ross says: “People should call us if they see graffiti. We also have a website and folks should use it.” An online form to report graffiti can be found on the city’s website.

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