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Not so fast: Aldermen won’t relax spray paint ban to help store owners just yet

A city worker cleansg up graffiti. | Provided photo

Chicago’s 26-year-old ban on the retail sale of spray paint would be a ban no more for adults at the behest of its original sponsor to help retailers in border wards losing business to the suburbs.

But, it didn’t happen Wednesday.

Instead of approving the ordinance co-sponsored by Aldermen Edward Burke (14th) and Matt O’Shea (19th), the License Committee referred the two-year-old ordinance back to the Burke-chaired Finance Committee.

License Committee Chairman Emma Mitts (37th) said she handed off to Burke because he asked her to do so. She didn’t explain why.

O’Shea is hoping Wednesday’s legislative switch sets the stage for passage of an ordinance that’s been stuck in committee for two years.

He argued that small business owners at True Value, Ace Hardware and other stores in his border ward are “getting crushed” by customers leaving the city.

“People are going to the suburbs right across the street from their locations. They can’t get spray paint there, so they’re not stopping there at all. They’ve asked me to help them,” O’Shea said.

O’Shea denied that relaxing the ban would be an open invitation to graffiti taggers.

“People who want to tag and spray paint–they’re gonna get their spray paint wherever they can. It doesn’t matter if they shop two blocks from their house or four miles from their house,” O’Shea said.

“If people want drugs, they’re gonna go outside their neighborhood to get `em. If people want alcohol, they’re gonna go outside their neighborhood to get it.”

Retired Chicago Police lieutenant and anti-graffiti crusader Bob Angone said Burke and O’Shea are making a “colossal mistake” by pushing to allow adults to purchase spray paint.

“No signs in stores will stop those taggers. The ban helped keep Chicago the beautiful city it is. Something stinks here,” Angone wrote in an email Wednesday to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“Make no mistake that ban kept Chicago from being overrun with mindless graffiti. It cost the CTA millions and then spread to the neighborhoods. What a few businesses will earn will cost taxpayers more millions in cleanup, cops time and it’s just plain ugly. It was a daily battle those aldermen don’t want to face.”

Under the watered-down ordinance now before the Finance Committee, Chicago retailers that choose to sell spray paint, broad-tipped markers and etching equipment would be required to display them in an area “not accessible to the general public without employee assistance.”

Those stores would also be required to post “cards in public view” that warn: “Vandalism is against the law and punishable by a fine of up to $2,500” and up to 30 days in jail.

In an apparent attempt to make the relaxed rules easier to swallow for those concerned that the changes would be an open invitation to taggers, Burke tossed in dramatically higher fines for minors found in possession of “graffiti implements” and adults who aid and abet them.

Minors would face a $500 fine for each offense and three times that amount if they’re caught more than once in the same year. They also would be required to perform community service.

Adults who help them procure “graffiti implements” would face fines ranging from $500 to $1,500 for each offense.

The City Council banned the retail sale of spray paint in Chicago in 1992 to deprive graffiti vandals of their “weapons of terror” on the same day aldermen voted to regulate outdoor pay phones in a crackdown on drug dealers.

Frustration over the city’s drug and gang epidemics boiled over on that day as aldermen yanked out of committee and passed a two-year-old spray paint ban. At the time, it had been put on hold after paint executives agreed to donate thousands of gallons of paint to the city to clean up vandalized buildings.

Chicago, where 4 million cans of spray paint were sold each year at an estimated cost of $ 12 million, was the only U.S. city to ban retail sale of the product, according to the National Paint and Coatings Association.

Seven years earlier, aldermen had banned the sale of spray paint to minors.

Then-Ald. Richard Mell (33rd), whose daughter now represents the ward, argued then that the measure did nothing to stop the “mindless ‘taggers’ who were racing through our neighborhoods destroying property.”

Burke agreed, calling cans of spray paint “weapons of terror.”

“If they can’t buy it in Humboldt Park, they ain’t going to drive to Highland Park,” he said then.

Challenges to the trailblazing ban on the sale of spray paint went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the ban in 1995.