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For most of his life, Adam Natenshon saw graffiti as the city’s wallpaper, an urban inevitability like traffic jams. But one day last summer, some taggers scaled the scaffolding surrounding a historic building his real-estate company was developing, the Hairpin Lofts, now home to the Logan Square Community Arts Center. The vandals decided the limestone of the landmark Morris B. Sachs Flatiron could use some black spray paint. One tag read fuck you.
Natenshon tapped the site’s masons to remove the graffiti. Later in the week, the paint was gone, but a legible shadow remained. “The masons were like, ‘This is as good as it gets,’ ” recalls Natenshon, a compact, energetic 35-year-old with wavy salt-and-pepper hair and a neatly trimmed beard. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding?! This is a public-private partnership. I can’t have a giant fuck you on the side of the building!’ ”
Online, Natenshon stumbled upon SoSafe, an Australian maker of nontoxic, environmentally friendly graffiti-removal products; he noticed the line had been picked up by transit agencies and schools from New South Wales to California. Natenshon ordered SoSafe’s Shadow Chaser, which erased the graffiti ghosts and impressed the masons. Phoning SoSafe, he asked why the stuff wasn’t readily available in Chicago, a city known for its war on graffiti, notably the 1993 launch of Mayor Daley’s Graffiti Blasters and the City Council’s ’95 ban on the sale of spray paint. A rep told him the company hadn’t yet entered the market. Natenshon agreed to be SoSafe’s Midwest distributor.
He soon nicked an idea that originated in Australia, hosting Graffiti Action Day events in the First Ward. Its alderman, Proco “Joe” Moreno, was one of Natenshon’s earliest converts. On select Saturday mornings, Natenshon convenes volunteers to serve as graffiti-abatement officers. They don goggles and latex gloves, and wield water buckets, sponges, rags and, of course, bottles of SoSafe to snuff out pesky tags that cover light poles, mail and newspaper boxes, and bike racks.
Since late April, four such events have targeted commercial corridors along Chicago, Milwaukee, Western and North Avenues, where prolific taggers like Weed Wolf (who declined to comment for this story) reign supreme. The events have drawn as many as a couple of dozen volunteers.
It would be easy to criticize Natenshon as a salesman in activist clothing if he weren’t so sincere about spreading the gospel of inexpensive graffiti removal. Moreno’s office pays wholesale price, $17.50 per bottle of SoSafe.
“The Graffiti Blasters had a $5.5 million budget in 2011 and removed 160,000 tags. That’s about $34 per tag,” Natenshon says. (Mayor Emanuel cut the 2012 graffiti budget to $3.6 million.) “The Graffiti Action Day volunteers each get to about 30 to 50 tags in one morning. So you figure about $20 per head, that works out to about 50 cents to 75 cents per tag. It’s a hell of a value.” While the Graffiti Blasters focus on large-scale pieces, the pitch intrigued 46th Ward Ald. James Cappleman, whose staff plans to rally the area’s block clubs for a Graffiti Action Day this summer.
Natenshon is also demonstrating SoSafe for suburban municipalities; Arlington Heights, Aurora, Elgin, Evanston, Joliet and Niles now use the products. The CTA is pilot testing SoSafe, according to the agency’s chief infrastructure officer, Timothy Webb. And after a demo, Harold Washington College’s chief engineer Rich Wren says he recommended to his superiors that the City Colleges switch to SoSafe for the health of its staff and students.
Could Natenshon’s efforts hasten the day Chicago is tagless? “If graffiti removal worked, we would already be a city free of tags,” says Oliver Hild, owner of Noble Square’s street-art-leaning Maxwell Colette Gallery, which is selling a Weed Wolf sticker on its website for $60. “Will a newly cleaned wall deter someone from writing on it? Never.”