Robotic cameras flash out graffiti art
By Bonnie Rothman Morris
New York Times
Dec. 15, 2002
What flashes and shouts when it sees something moving, helping to stop crime? No, not some kind of high-tech police robot, but a much simpler invention: a modified film camera being used in Milwaukee, Los Angeles and other cities to deter graffiti vandalism.
The camera is a Vivitar 35mm flash model, equipped with a motion detector and a digital voice recorder-player, and housed in a rugged steel and clear plastic case. The system, which works on five C batteries, is mounted on a tree or pole overlooking an area where graffiti vandals might be tempted to work.
If the system detects motion, it fires the camera and flash and issues "a pretty darn loud" warning, said Ken Anderson, president of Q-Star Technology, in Chatsworth, Calif., which makes the system. The warning, which can be recorded by the owner of the system, is usually something like, "Stop! This is a restricted area. We have just taken your photograph," and can be recorded and played back in any two languages.
Anderson, a former technology newsletter publisher who developed the camera system as a hobby, said it was meant as an alternative for governments and companies that spend a lot of money on removing graffiti.
Milwaukee, for example, which has more than 200 bridges that are targets of graffiti vandals, spent about $1 million two years ago on removal. The money paid for crews who sandblasted graffiti or otherwise removed it from bridges and repainted them, said Paul Novotny, the city's bridge maintenance manager.
Now the city uses about 20 of the modified cameras in eight locations to deter vandals. The cameras cost $3,000 each and are frequently moved from location to location, to keep "taggers," as the vandals are called, guessing.
"Every place we put them in at least pushes the kids away from the area that the camera is focused on," Novotny said. "They don't go under that bridge anymore." The film can be changed as needed: The system comes with a kind of remote control for determining, from the ground, how many exposures remain. But even if all the exposures are used up, the system will keep firing the camera and flash and activating the audio player.
The California Water Service Co.'s Westlake District recently installed a camera at a Ventura County reservior that is a favorite gathering place for teens, who would hang out at night with blankets, pizzas and beer on top of the concrete holding tank and paint to their hearts' content. No more.
"Since the camera has gone in, we haven't had a problem," said Elaine Marchessault, water company district manager. at "Not one bottle, not one can, not one piece of trash and no graffiti."
So far, no one has been caught with spray can in hand, arrested and convicted. And no one has complained about being spied upon. Graffiti vandals, though, are finding ways to protest. Last month, in Lynwood, Calif., a city of 60,000 people and 26 anti-graffiti cameras, a tagger climbed to the top of a pole where a camera was mounted and spray-painted it. The camera did not catch the act: Its batteries were dead.