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Originally published May 3, 2012 at 5:53 PM | Page modified May 3, 2012 at 9:35 PM

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Before May Day, Seattle's graffiti detective saw writing on the wall

Seattle police say the city's advance knowledge that the May Day protests could be marred by vandalism is due, in part, to the department's sole graffiti detective.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Seattle police say the city's advance knowledge that the May Day protests could be marred by vandalism is due, in part, to a detective who saw the writing on the wall.

The intentions of some factions to disrupt the annual demonstrations were not a secret, and some hints appeared on the Internet before May Day.

Nevertheless, Seattle police spokesman Sgt. Sean Whitcomb said the work of Christopher Young, the department's sole graffiti detective, was pivotal.

"His work, and that of other detectives in the department, really helped us to forecast the possibility of violence on this scale," Whitcomb said Thursday.

Based on that information, Mayor Mike McGinn's office last week issued a statement warning that the May Day protests could be marred by people "with the intention of using the public demonstrations as an opportunity to commit violence, damage property and disrupt peaceful free-speech activity." Still, that warning didn't prevent some from breaking windows on downtown businesses, cars and Seattle's federal courthouse.

Young, 42, had worked in the department's sexual-assault, domestic-violence and child-abuse units before becoming the department's only graffiti detective last year. While he's attended seminars on graffiti, most of what he's learned has been on the job, he said.

"I read every graffiti report that the officers write and it's my job to connect the dots," he said.

In March, he said, officers began seeing a lot of "communicative graffiti," that is graffiti which is political in nature.

According to Young, there are five basic kinds of graffiti.

The most common, which accounts for more than 80 percent of Seattle's graffiti, is called "tagger graffiti."

Taggers consider themselves artists but are actually "seeking thrills and attention," Young said. "It's a compulsive behavior, like someone who shoplifts though they have money."

"Gang graffiti," another category, represents only about 2 percent of Seattle's graffiti, he said.

"Many people think that all graffiti is 'gang graffiti,' " Young said, "but that's a myth."

"Hate graffiti," such as a swastika painted on a Jewish Temple, or "art graffiti," such as paintings and posters, each constitute a small percentage of the city's graffiti, he said.

"Communicative graffiti," which represents about 3 percent of Seattle's graffiti, is political in nature, according to Young, and is left by women as often as men.

One recent example was the phrase, "The United States is not a papal state" which was written on a Catholic church.

Over the past two months. Young said, the East Precinct especially has been peppered with "communicative graffiti" that broadcast intentions.

"They were telling us they were going to take action," he said.

For example, he said the anarchist's symbol — the letter "A" inside a circle — and the words "May 1st GENERAL STRIKE," were painted in numerous locations. So was ACAB, which means "All Cops Are Bastards," Young said.

And "Kidnap the Mayor" was written in a downtown alley by an unknown suspect, said Young, The location and paint color indicate it may have been written by two people, a man and a woman, who were recently arrested at a sit-in at City Hall.

The two people are suspected in a number of graffiti incidents that could bring felony charges due to the level of financial loss suffered by property owners, Young said.

Young said that when he started seeing the May Day graffiti, he notified his supervisor and detectives with the criminal intelligence unit.

"The anarchists warned the city they were going to cause problems and we tried to prepare the best we could," said Young. "It's unfortunate some windows got broken, but it could have been a lot worse."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

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