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A graffito at Wolf Trap scandalizes police.

The Wolf Trap Farm Park in Vienna, Va., is a sylvan arts retreat with the feel of a simpler era. The grounds are impeccably kept, the facilities are rustic, and the summertime crowds always seem happy. No one, it seems, misbehaves there.

No one did until Jan. 11, that is. On that day, the U.S. Park Police found something amiss on a wall at the farm park’s maintenance yard: “ELSE” was painted in fat block letters, a sign that the District had perhaps exported one of its less desirable art forms to the ‘burbs.

Wolf Trap responded with all the outrage of a cul-de-sac citizens association. The U.S. Park Police blast-faxed a bulletin with pictures of the vandalized wall to local media outlets. The charge listed on the bulletin—destruction of government property—is a federal crime and a felony in this case.

The bulletin asked helpful citizens who might recognize the graffito’s style to contact the Park Police crime tip line.

The Park Service’s activism may be laudable, but it’s a bit uneven. National Park territories in the District—most notably Rock Creek Park and the C&O Canal in Georgetown—are popular proving grounds for taggers. Yet the Park Police rarely pursue vandalism cases in D.C. with the zeal of the ongoing Wolf Trap investigation.

Sgt. Scott Fear, public-information officer for the U.S. Park Police, says that graffiti in National Parks typically bring the destruction-of-government-property charge, with the value of the vandalized property determining whether the crime is a felony.

“We’re using all of our normal avenues to investigate a graffiti crime,” Fear says of the Wolf Trap vandalism. “Any graffiti case that we have in the District, Maryland, or Virginia, we will investigate and close with an arrest.”

Fear acknowledges, however, that sending out a bulletin on a graffiti investigation might not be normal procedure. He says that the faxed police bulletin about the Wolf Trap graffito may have come from the detective investigating the case in “an attempt to drum up some interest.”

“The National Park Police are covering a lot of territory. They don’t have the manpower or the resources to go after each case,” says Matt Berres of the nonprofit Potomac Conservancy, a group that keeps an eye on local parkland.

Fear cites a recently closed case at Francis Scott Key Park in which officers caught taggers in the act. A car chase ensued and resulted in an arrest. But working with the Fairfax Police Department to match the Wolf Trap graffito with the signature loopy letters of known taggers requires a different level of involvement than busting someone with a spray can in hand.

According to Mary Myers, a public-information officer for the District’s Department of Public Works, the District enforces its anti-graffiti laws by catching taggers red-handed and through regular cleanup sweeps with the city’s two graffiti-buffing trucks. Although the Metropolitan Police Department recently tracked down and arrested someone for putting up illegal posters, she notes, searching for taggers would be trickier.

“The challenge is finding who’s responsible. It’s hard to hold [graffiti vandals] accountable if they’re not caught in the act,” Myers says.

Bethesda resident Roger Gastman, the dean of Washington’s graffiti lore and editor of the magazine While You Were Sleeping, says that the graffito on the Wolf Trap wall looks as if it was done by a tagger with some experience.

Gastman says that National Park property is “pretty much open territory” for graffiti artists seeking to cover high-profile canvases. But he says that taggers follow an unwritten code of avoiding sensitive spots such as national monuments and churches, where their work is sure to be removed. He says the graffiti artist who hit Wolf Trap probably didn’t know what he was stepping in.

“You don’t want to waste your time writing on something that’s going to get buffed over,” Gastman says. “The graffiti artist probably just thought it was a stupid wall that meant nothing.” CP