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Image of soldiers protects Bucktown fence from graffiti

Do graffiti artists have a sense of decency?

Dave Prawdzik, approaching the end of his rope, decided to find out.

Last fall, Prawdzik, a Vietnam vet, painted two soldiers kneeling over the graves of fallen comrades on the wooden fence outside his home in West Bucktown. For years, the fence had doubled as a canvas for graffiti artists and gangs.

And, all at once, it stopped.

“I think they had a little bit more respect,” said Prawdzik, 66, who works for the city’s Department of Aviation, keeping the runways clear at O’Hare International Airport. But the mural is more than a deterrent for Prawdzik.

“I did it out of respect for the people who didn’t make it back, and for the ones who did who were looked down upon when we returned home,” said Prawdzik, a self-proclaimed “non-artist” who stenciled an outline of the soldiers to create the mural.

For years, Prawdzik would notify the city of graffiti on a regular basis and the city would send crews to pressure-wash the fence. But relentlessly, punctual vandals would strike again within days.

Gang symbols, but mostly the letters VTC, appeared on the fence. The initials stand for Vandalize the City — the handle of a group of taggers.

This West Bucktown fence near a Kennedy on-ramp was a frequent target of graffiti artists.  |  Provided

This West Bucktown fence near a Kennedy on-ramp was a frequent target of graffiti artists. | Provided

“It was like once a week, and then finally we were like: ‘Forget it. We’re not looking at it. Let it go,” said Prawdzik’s wife, Cynthia.

“And then someone left us a nasty anonymous message accusing us of promoting gang activity by not cleaning the fence,” Cynthia Prawdzik said. “My daughter posted her own note on a lamp post saying ‘If you want to discuss this with us like rational people, call our number.”

No one called, but the Prawdziks, including their two daughters, ages 25 and 30, were upset by it.

The beige fence is prime graffiti real estate. It abuts an onramp to the Kennedy Expressway. Thousands of drivers slowly roll by it every day.

Since the memorial went up , only once has graffiti — a gang symbol — appeared on the fence. Prawdzik grabbed his paint can and touched it up. People in passing cars honked approval as he did.

VTC tagged properties along Milwaukee two weeks ago when a snowfall mostly rid the streets of witnesses, but Prawdzik’s fence was spared.

“They’re not a gang, they’re a bunch of guys — in some cases, girls — who think they’re artists and will leave their name all over the place,” Chicago Police Capt. Marc Buslik said of the group.

“They just tag all sorts of property, no matter what,” said Ald. Scott Waguespack (32nd). “VTC actually will vandalize murals as well. I’m surprised they didn’t do this one. Because it’s military, maybe they’re a little more reluctant to hit it. I think it’d be great if they didn’t touch it. It’s a cool mural.”

Buslik noted that graffiti in his Northwest Side district is mostly done by taggers, not gangs.

“It doesn’t surprise me that something like this military mural would dissuade them,” Buslik said. “I mean, these aren’t desperadoes. These are street artists. People just trying to get their name out there.

“They’re not hateful people. They’re not mean. They’re not evil.”

Bars and restaurants along Milwaukee and Armitage Avenues draw the “cool kid” audience that appeals to taggers, Buslik said.

“Three-fourths of them are Columbia students and they all think they’re artists,” said Buslik, who noted that his officers average about one graffiti arrest a week, the most in the city, and keep a database of known taggers.

“It’s hard to catch them; they can spray something in 10 seconds and be gone,” said Waguespack, who puts taggers to work cleaning up his ward when they are caught and whacked by a judge with community service.

Stiffer graffiti fines put in place last year haven’t helped or been applied much, said Waguespack, who will occasionally drive around looking for taggers. Prawdzik, too, remains vigilant.

“Every day I look around the fence to make sure it’s not tagged. It’s like a ritual for me,” said Prawdzik, who has a deep connection to the neighborhood.

He grew up in the house near Medill and Leavitt. His parents didn’t want to move when, in the late 50s, the Kennedy Expressway was slated to run through the family living room, so the home was moved 115 feet to its present location.

“This neighborhood means a lot to me,” he said.

The Prawdziks plan to expand the memorial on their fence in the spring to include tributes to Chicago’s police and fire departments.

“Hopefully, whoever’s doing this will continue to respect it.”