By night, Midtown vandals spray paint the walls. By day, Teresa Ferguson cleans up the mess.
Teresa Ferguson picks up the spray can and shakes it vigorously. She climbs to the top rung of her yellow stepladder, extends to the tips of her toes and points the can toward the crimson awning of a Midtown building.
“Ssst. Ssst. Sssssssst.”
She traces a capital letter H, followed by four indistinguishable lowercase letters, then leans back to view her work through the reading glasses on the end of her nose. Just one more quick stroke.
From a distance, one might assume she’s writing her name on private property, but she’s actually erasing someone else’s. Ferguson works for Associated Construction and Maintenance, replacing light bulbs, cleaning gutters and undoing the handiwork of the army of vandals that descends upon Midtown each night.
“They’re all marking their turfs,” Ferguson says. “Other gang members don’t like it when you mark over their turf, so I just hope I don’t get shot trying to clean up the place.”
Graffiti has long marred the walls of alleys, buildings and the sidewalks of Midtown, and property managers have turned to firms like Associated Construction and Maintenance to combat the nuisance.
Working in the warmth of daylight, Ferguson races against her Krylon-wielding foes, who leave their mark under the veil of darkness.
The job is not without danger. Since most of the graffiti she removes appears to be more gang-related than artistically inspired, she keeps a watchful eye out for the taggers whose work she is covering.
“It is kind of scary,” she says. “I’ll see kids looking at me real weird because they know that I’m there to remove graffiti. They will give me weird looks and then get on their cell phones and start calling people.”
Spray paint, permanent markers, paint rollers, stickers and other innovative media are the graffiti artists’ weapons of choice. In turn, Ferguson maintains her own arsenal. Goof Off Graffiti Remover has become the go-to answer in a pinch. In extreme cases, a stronger chemical resembling a thick pudding must be applied in conjunction with a power washer. The pudding is so toxic, Ferguson must wear gloves and a respirator when applying it. She keeps a ready supply of both implements in her truck.
In every building she oversees, she stores buckets and spray cans that match the structure’s exterior colors. If one is not readily available, she chips a sample off the wall to take to a paint specialist for computer matching. She dislikes quick jobs with one-off paint colors, but sometimes when time is a factor, she’ll use a “quick filler-in for right now, because if you leave it on there then all of the gangs keep coming back and marking their territory.”
A background in house painting has equipped Ferguson with the knowledge for cleaning paint off of walls, but with other graffiti media, as well as the different “canvasses” to which they can be applied—brick, cement, glass—the work can be trial and error.
“On the average, once or twice a week I have somewhere in my buildings that I have to take care of graffiti,” she says. She works five days a week, spending each day in a different neighborhood. She says of all the stops on her route, downtown and Midtown get the most defacement.
In an alley between J and I streets, Ferguson inspects one of her high-traffic zones. Today the walls are pristine, but last week was a different story. A vindictive tagger had left Ferguson a personal message: “Why do you want to cover my art?” She sanded the area, applied primer, and finally matched the exterior paint. The work is a time sucker and can be undone in less than a minute by a single tagger in the night.
“I think I did pretty good,” Ferguson says as she gestures to an area of painted brick that bears no trace of the spray paint lingering below the surface. “I try to make my work match pretty good.”
While leaving the alley, Ferguson notices large letters, most likely written in spray paint, covered with a roll-on green a few shades lighter than the green of the wall. “I didn’t do this area. The paint doesn’t match up. I would have matched the paint.”
Before putting her tools back into her truck, Ferguson spots some marker tags on a brick planter box. She pulls out her sanding sponge and gives the letters a few quick strokes. Instantly the words vanish and no painting is needed. She seems surprised by the ease of removing that one and continues to the pickup.
So for now Ferguson has the taggers at bay. If their marks aren’t visible on walls then graffiti artists don’t exist. But they will return, just as they always have. And Ferguson will be there the very next day, earning a living from the vandalism of others.
“The more graffiti in the area, the more it attracts gang members,” she says. “So I try to stay on top of things.”