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Graffiti buster cleans up the town

It's about 6:10 a.m. Thursday and 52 degrees in Costa Mesa.

Gaetano Russo has already been on the clock for 2 1/2 hours.

The skies are still black when his work truck approaches a side gate at the Santa Ana Country Club. He parks the Ford F-350 just off Newport Boulevard, the thoroughfare's two lanes empty at this time of the morning.

Like a responding police car or fire truck, he turns on the emergency lights. They go flashing about the scene conspicuously.

But Russo is here for a different kind of urgency: quickly ridding Costa Mesa of graffiti.

The 52-year-old city maintenance worker knows the turf like few others, street by side street by alleyway, block by block and wall to wall. It comes with the job of graffiti abatement, work he has been doing with quiet humility and genuine passion to better the community for a good portion of his nearly 27 years with the city.

"I'm just doing my job, moving on," he says. "I don't look at it like, 'I'm doing a good job; somebody's gotta tell me.'"

He may not expect to hear praise, but Public Services Director Ernesto Munoz has plenty to give Russo.

"Gaetano is one of the Public Service Department's most outstanding long-tenure employees," Munoz wrote in an email to the Daily Pilot. "His commitment to ensuring the city is maintained graffiti-free is unmatched."

At the country club, someone has tagged the dark green fence canvas with white spray paint. His solution? Cover it with dark green spray paint.

Russo grabs some from his well-equipped truck and applies accordingly. The can hisses over the hum of the 55 Freeway behind him. About a minute later, the problem is solved.

Moments before, he had removed graffiti from a tree just down the way. In that case, he used a pressure washer.

"That's easy money," he says before starting the task. "Won't take long."

Throughout the initial hours of his shift Thursday — the twilight time of Halloween, when most trick-or-treaters are still fast asleep — most of his jobs are "easy money."

They're generally cleaned up within a minute or two or three, whether by spray paint, paint applied with a brush, pressure washing, sandblasting, scrubbing or a combination thereof.

The scrubbing, fortunately, is effective after letting applied chemicals "work their magic." Then he can wipe the graffiti target clean.

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'Like it's my city'

Russo grew up in Naples, Italy. He met his wife there while she was on vacation. She's Italian-born but grew up in the U.S.

Eventually he made his way across the Atlantic Ocean to "try out America." He got his citizenship and never looked back.

"This country has been good to me," he says with a smile.

He volunteers with the Red Cross and is a graduate of Costa Mesa's citizens police academy. He's also a HAM radio enthusiast.

He lived in Costa Mesa initially — in the Westside, near Rea Elementary School — before buying a house in Lake Forest about 14 years ago.

"I work here like I still live here," he says. "I lived here since I came from Italy in 1981 ... I take care of it in ways like it's my city."

Russo started his Costa Mesa career at the city's golf course, then went to the parks division before trying his hand at graffiti abatement. He's been at it for 16 years.

He averages 22 to 24 calls a day, adding, "We have a seasonal trend. I hate to say it, but we do."

Spring break is the worst, Russo says. Christmas break and summer can be hectic too.

The Italian American, who got his first job at age 7 in his father's tailor shop, says he never could have guessed that he'd be doing what he does today.

"Are you kidding? I used to work in a bakery when I was a teenager in Italy," Russo says. "I never knew I was gonna do this."

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Paint for all places

Back at the city's Corporation Yard, off Placentia Avenue and across from Estancia High School, is the graffiti-abatement team's storage shed.

The trucks are stored there too. Russo's 10-year-old Ford has 46,000 miles on it — nearly all acquired rolling through the streets of Costa Mesa — and custom touches. There's a lapel pin of the Italian flag and a button made for the city's 50th anniversary in 2003.

And unlike some sheds, the team's is organized.

About 100 colors of paint are housed there; he keeps an additional 25 on his truck. The paint is separated into three general areas and customized to places that have needed touch-ups often — the Someone Cares Soup Kitchen, homes at 720 Hamilton and 744 Center streets, and the Fairview Park location used by the Orange County Model Engineers, to name a few.

Over time, the team has acquired the particular paint color for a house or wall. Computer software helps with color matching these days. But things haven't always been so precise.

"Back in the day, whatever I have in the truck that looks close to the color you have on your house, that's what you get," Russo says. "And believe me, I didn't like it when I did it."

The result was painted squares throughout the city that didn't match.

"We used to call them the little TVs," he adds. "You'd paint a square and go on to the next one."

A pop quiz about 2277 Harbor Blvd. — the Costa Mesa Motor Inn, a property recently cited for hundreds of alleged code violations — yields a quick answer.

"The only thing they tag over there is that green phone box out front," he says.

"That's the amazing part, right?" notes Mayor Pro Tem Steve Mensinger, who praised Russo's work during a recent council meeting. "You walk there and you see the same tag. He knows it."

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Tough job

With his trained eye, sometimes Russo can identify the handwriting, so to speak, of certain taggers.

Before most jobs, he enters information about the graffiti into the T.A.G.R.S. — Tracking and Automated Graffiti Reporting System — database, including where it is and how it was reported to him. The database is accessible to law enforcement.

Around 6:30 a.m., Russo pulls into an alleyway behind Mendoza Drive.

"Should be around here somewhere," he says, looking for the reported graffiti. Soon enough, he finds it along a wall.

"Here it is," Russo says with a chuckle. "Another gift."

He completes the cover-up work within minutes. Mendoza happens to be familiar territory.

"If I peel the wall, it probably has about 50 coats of paint on it," Russo remarks.

Another wall off Joann Street has had recurring problems as well. "I've been painting this wall for 16 years," he notes, to the extent that the layers have become "like plaster."

He likes the freedom that comes with his job. When the graffiti is within public view, he can generally take care of it on the spot.

City Hall doesn't escape his personal care.

"Nobody tells me to do it, but I've got the machine, the hot water," Russo says. "You get so many people at City Hall every day. It's nice to keep it clean."

He keeps himself clean too: "You don't see any paint on me, do you?" he asks.

Russo works at keeping good response times as well.

With graffiti calls, he says, "If you let them go today, tomorrow it might double up in size, because you may have a different guy come along and put his mark on it."

Not only that, but residents care about quick removal, he has found.

"You can be doing a good job for 10 years, and the time they call in graffiti and you don't respond within one day, right away, they call in and complain," Russo says. "But you know, at the end of the day you try to make everybody happy. I'm sure some days you cannot get to all of them, but that's why you prioritize.

"You get the most visible stuff first. The little stuff, that can wait until the next day."

Planning Commission Chairman Jim Fitzpatrick doesn't see Russo waiting around.

"Gaetano is a community asset curing and preventing blight while preserving quality of life in Costa Mesa," Fitzpatrick wrote in an email to the Daily Pilot. "He is a magician making graffiti disappear, often before you can call it in."

The job's bad times — cleaning a horrendous Lions Park restroom or smelly flood control channel — contrast sharply with the serene moments, like when he saw a shooting star above Harbor Boulevard and a full moon along Victoria Street.

Yet even with graffiti, there has to be some light moments.

"Somebody's been going around town and drawing flowers everywhere," Russo says with a laugh. "We have to treat it like a graffiti thing, ya know. They do damage. It's the same thing. We remove the graffiti.

"I don't know what kind of message they're trying to send across, but we have to do it."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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