FOX 29 Investigates: City workers tracking down national graffiti ring

PHILADELPHIA (WTXF) It's a flashy, widespread crime that's designed to get your attention and it's costing city taxpayers more than a million dollars a year.

Graffiti painted across the city has crews cleaning up thousands of sites each year. Graffiti artists or so called "taggers" are destroying public and private property in a lot of city neighborhoods. Now authorities believe "taggers" from a national ring of graffiti artists have decided to make Philadelphia their next urban canvass.

FOX 29's Dave Schratwieser reports on a group that is making headlines in cities across the country.

It's a job these city workers repeat over 100,000 times each year. Painting over graffiti splashed across buildings, bridges, even trucks throughout Philadelphia and it costs taxpayers big bucks.

"We spend $1.2 million dollars a year to clean up graffiti," C.L.I.P Deputy Director Edward Guzak told FOX 29.

But on this day, the city workers were at the corner of Spring Garden and Front Streets just off I-95. They're here to spray paint over a giant so called tag that says bowzr-swank. It's no ordinary graffiti or tag, city officials believe this was the work of out-of-town graffiti artists who came to Philadelphia with one purpose.

FOX 29 Investigates found that the tag "bowzr-swank" or sometimes "swank-bowzr" started popping up in prominent places in Philadelphia about six months ago. It's been painted on walls, on private buildings, even on delivery trucks.

These are elaborate "tags" that cost about $600 in paint and can take as many as two days to complete. The graffiti crew that's putting these up may be part of a nationwide ring and can go just about anywhere, according to city officials.

The owners of a food supply company on North American Street got stung by the out of town taggers in early August. They broke in through a rear fence and tagged five delivery trucks with the word "bowzr".

A few weeks earlier, the taggers struck at Emerald and Lehigh. Two stories off the ground at a business called Ironworks. It's owned by Carlos Santos.

Santos told FOX 29 Investigates that the taggers even cut the feed from his surveillance cameras that would have captured them tagging his building. They simply cut the cable to the cameras.

"They damage it. I pay for this. A lot of money. Take from my pocket," he explained.

It turns out, Philadelphia is not the only city being hit hard by the bowzr swank taggers. Their work has shown up in Dallas, Detroit, San Francisco, Oklahoma City and Tulsa. Philadelphia officials are convinced it's the same crew traveling across the country. They use the initials EHC or CTD for "cost taxpayer dollars".

In fact, authorities in Oklahoma City and Tulsa believe the bowzr swank tags found in their cities were the work of at least three people. They have been arrested before on other charges, but not for painting graffiti.

Oklahoma investigators told FOX 29 they believe the taggers go on so called "spraycations" to other cities to do their work. One was arrested here in Philadelphia back in January for criminal mischief. The district attorney's office says the charges were dropped when a witness failed to show up for court. No word on where he is now, but if he is here, city officials have a message.

"Move out of the city, get out of here and go back to where they came from."

Back at Front and Spring Garden, city crews had to paint the entire side of this new building to cover up the giant bowzr swank tag. The cost to city taxpayers between $1,800 to $2,500.

As for those so called "artists" or taggers who think this is a victimless crime, Guzak says.

Painting graffiti is a misdemeanor. City officials believe these out of town taggers live or visit the area near Northern Liberties or Fishtown. So far, no one's been charged in the bowzr swank tagging incidents here in Philadelphia.