From New Orleans City Business
‘Gray Ghost’ feuds with Nola Rising creator
by Richard A. Webster Staff Writer
NEW ORLEANS - Michael Dingler knew he was in trouble when the “Gray Ghost” appeared at the Freret Street Art Market in December accompanied by Joseph Joia, a New Orleans Police Department quality of life officer.
Joia cited Dingler for more than 1,100 counts of unlawfully posting signs on telephone poles that could cost him more than $50,000 in fines.
Dingler doesn’t deny the charges. Since Hurricane Katrina he has hung hundreds of hand-painted “messages of hope” throughout the city, signs with slogans such as “Smile” and “Welcome Back.”
Dingler said the charges don’t make sense given that Joia arrived with Fred Radtke, aka the Gray Ghost, who has made a name for himself by slathering gray paint over graffiti on public and private buildings — often without property owner approval.
“When I asked Officer Joia if he was going to file the same charges against Fred under the graffiti statutes, he said he was unaware of what I was talking about,” Dingler said. “Here’s a guy who is destroying city property, who has become what he said he is fighting against. And yet I’m the one facing all these charges? It’s selective enforcement of the law.”
Radtke dismissed Dingler’s accusations, called him a “loser,” a “phony” and the “biggest pain in the ass I ever met.”
He said Dingler’s so-called “messages of hope” are “vertical trash” that promote other forms of vandalism.
“It’s real simple: People either want to abide by the law or not,” Radtke said.
Radtke, 52, founded the nonprofit Operation Clean Sweep in 1997 to fight graffiti.
The former Marine covers graffiti full time and depends on donations to fund his operation, including several $10,000 grants from the city of New Orleans and a $32,000 grant over a four-year period from Freeport-McMoRan.
Radtke expanded his targets after the storm from simply graffiti to signs illegally posted on telephone poles. He paints over band posters and political and business advertisements.
Dingler, also a former Marine and a New Orleans native, has organized Nola Rising, a post-Katrina campaign to encourage people to display public works of art meant to inspire people during the recovery.
The idea was to hand paint signs with positive slogans such as “Believe” and “Everybody radiates sunshine on the soul” and hang them everywhere, from Uptown to the Lower Ninth Ward.
Dingler said his friends warned him against the idea. They said it was pointless because his artwork would fall victim to the unforgiving brush of the Gray Ghost.
“I had no idea who he was,” Dingler said. “I thought it was crazy. Who would paint over messages of hope?”
A few days after Dingler hung his first signs, Radtke covered them with a thick layer of gray paint.
“You have to have a pretty cold heart to do something like that,” Dingler said. “I definitely didn’t think that what I was doing was a crime.”
Dingler is scheduled to appear March 18 in Orleans Parish Civil District Court. He said it is difficult to understand why he faces $50,000-plus in fines for hanging removable pieces of art while Radtke is free to splatter permanent gray paint on whatever surface he wants with impunity.
Radtke is an independent operator whose actions are not officially sanctioned by the city. City officials said they allow him to do his thing because of a lack of manpower and funds.
Robert Mendoza, director of the New Orleans Public Works Department, said Radtke is breaking the law every time he paints over graffiti on public street signs. But Mendoza will do nothing to prosecute the violations, he said, because his office lacks the resources and time to conduct an investigation.
The New Orleans Police Department, however, condones Radtke’s actions. NOPD often calls him directly to cover graffiti, and spokesman Sgt. Joe Narcisse said they have no intention of charging Radtke with any crimes.
Dingler said he was charged with violations of the law after Radtke became obsessed with him and embarked on a personal vendetta.
Radtke’s harassment has nothing to do with ridding the city of graffiti, he said.
Radtke didn’t deny his war against Dingler is personal and said he will use all of his energy and resources to financially cripple him. He accuses Dingler of being in league with the graffiti artists, saying Dingler intentionally provoked him by hanging signs calling him the “Gray Gangster” and posted his home address on the Internet.
Tiffiny Wallace, owner of the Lucky You Candy Co. at 4505 Magazine St., is a fan of the Nola Rising project and has several works hanging on telephone poles in front of her store.
“It’s a uniquely New Orleans thing and the kids who come into my store love it,” said Wallace. “I don’t understand why Michael’s being charged with all of these things while Radtke is free to paint gray paint all over my neighbor’s windows without his permission. It’s going to cost $1,000 now to replace them.”
Wallace contemplated pursuing a restraining order against Radtke to prevent him from painting over the Nola Rising signs. She is circulating a petition among Magazine Street business owners demanding Radtke secure their permission before he paints anything on their properties.
Radtke said he has no problem with that. But Dingler’s signs are illegal, he said, just as it is illegal to staple bills, posters or signs of any kind to telephone poles.
And it doesn’t matter if the signs happen to be hand-painted, “pretty pictures” of rainbows with inspirational slogans.
To Radtke it is all vandalism and he is going to “gray” it all out, whether anyone asks him to or not.
As a result of the escalating tension, Radtke and Dingler said they fear for their safety.
Radtke said taggers he associates with Dingler have thrown acid at him, threatened him with knives and smashed his truck windows.
Dingler points to an online photograph of a bloodied young graffiti artist he claims Radtke attacked.
Radtke said the beating was self-defense and no charges were ever filed against him.
Diane Lundeen, owner of Petcetera on Magazine Street and a judge with the Louisiana Office of Worker’s Compensation District 8, said the city should oversee volunteers such as Radtke to coordinate his efforts and ensure business owner property rights.
Until then, he continues to operate as a freelancer without direct oversight or accountability, she said.
Dingler is compiling a database of Radtke’s handiwork that should dwarf the 1,100 counts he now faces. He will present his evidence to the police, just as Radtke did, and demand charges be filed.
“This all started with me trying to do something good for the city and now it has turned into a nightmare all because of a guy called the Gray Ghost,” Dingler said. “It’s insane.”•
New Orleans City Business
Gray Ghost goes gonzo on graffiti
by Richard A. Webster Staff Writer
NEW ORLEANS - Fred Radtke is the Gray Ghost, the self-appointed scourge of the New Orleans graffiti scene.
Since he began his one-man crusade in 1997, Radtke’s supporters have hailed him as an indispensable tool in the fight against graffiti vandalism. His detractors call him a vigilante with a paint can.
Taggers have dubbed Radtke, 52, the Gray Ghost because of his elusive nature and the sudden and mysterious appearance of gray paint over their work.
Mayor C. Ray Nagin, New Orleans Police Department Superintendent Warren Riley, the Louisiana State Police, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI have praised his work.
But some property owners question what separates Radtke from the vandals he is fighting.
“He may think what he’s doing is a corrective measure but it’s unauthorized in many cases and doesn’t correct the graffiti but just camouflages it with another color of paint. That’s the same thing,” said Lary Hesdorffer, Vieux Carre Commission director. “It may be with better intent, but that doesn’t make it right.”
Radtke founded Operation Clean Sweep, a nonprofit dedicated to eradicating graffiti. His method is simple: He covers any graffiti he sees with water-based gray primer paint. For larger jobs, he uses a solvent and power washer to eradicate the graffiti.
Noel Scott, manager of Howard and Baronne Storage on St. Joseph Street, said Radtke eliminated three massive 6-by-6-foot murals on the side of its building in just hours at no cost.
But Radtke said power washing is expensive and since he depends on grants from companies like New Orleans-based Helm Paint & Supply Inc. to fund his operation, he can only use it in limited situations. For every other job, Radtke depends on his gray paint which he’s used to cover graffiti from the Lower Ninth Ward to Uptown, in Orleans and Jefferson parishes, on everything from telephone poles to street signs, levee walls and the sides of buildings.
Radtke operates under the “broken windows” philosophy: A broken window left unrepaired will lead to more broken windows and more decay in the quality of life.
And he applies this theory to graffiti with a missionary zeal. To Radtke, graffiti is not just an eyesore, it is a personal offense to himself and the community. He accuses taggers of being anarchists, agitators and members of the church of Satan.
Radtke, a retired Marine, is rebuilding his Lakeview home destroyed during Hurricane Katrina. Before the storm, he had 100 volunteers working for him on graffiti but is now down to a core group of four.
Radtke’s opponents agree with his quest to eliminate spray-painted vandalism and gang-related tags, but they say he overstepped an important boundary when he took it upon himself to “gray out” graffiti on private buildings without the permission of the property owners.
“Some people don’t notice the big gray splotches until you point them out and then they see them everywhere,” said Michael Dingler, founder of Nola Rising, a post-Katrina campaign to encourage people to display public works of art.
“But what’s the difference between someone who paints their name on a building and Radtke painting big gray boxes over the graffiti? Just because he can’t afford to get rid of it the right way that’s no excuse to do it the wrong way.”
Radtke is not a city employee or an independent contractor, though the NOPD and the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development frequently contact him to paint over graffiti.
Radtke said he works with the approval of neighborhood associations but some people are looking to rein him in.
Hesdorffer said Radtke has illegally painted over graffiti on historic buildings in the French Quarter for years without the proper permits.
Radtke recently agreed to obtain permits and the consent of property owners before painting over any graffiti in the French Quarter. He also agreed to match his paint to the color of each individual building instead of always using gray.
Radtke, however, defended his past actions in the French Quarter and claims he reduced graffiti by 75 percent.
“One property owner in the French Quarter in the early ‘90s painted his property 26 times in six months to get rid of graffiti,” Radtke said. “He said it was easier to leave it on, and that was the attitude.”
Radtke said if property owners don’t like what he is doing, they can pay to remove the graffiti themselves or be fined by as much as $500 under a 1998 law that punishes property owners for failure to remove graffiti 30 days after receiving a notice from the city.
Radtke’s practice of painting over graffiti on public street signs has also generated criticism.
Robert Mendoza, New Orleans Public Works Department director, said street signs require a specific reflective surface for night viewing and by painting them gray Radtke is putting the public at risk.
Mendoza said Radtke is making the graffiti problem worse by smearing gray paint over an entire sign to cover up a thin, spray-painted signature.
But Radtke is unapologetic. He said if the city replaced the vandalized stop signs or coated them with a protective cover, he wouldn’t paint over them.
Radtke said pressure washing the signs would wipe off the face of the sign along with the graffiti. Therefore, he said, he has no choice but to paint them gray.
“If people did their jobs, I wouldn’t be involved,” he said. “Right now the only thing we can do to deter graffiti on signs is to cover it up with water-based gray paint.”
Mendoza said Radtke is choosing to break the law.
“It’s not legal for him to paint signs, no more legal than graffiti,” said Mendoza.
Given the limited funds and manpower of the department, Mendoza said it is impossible to replace every sign tagged with graffiti but he is looking into anti-graffiti coatings.
He said criminal charges haven’t been pressed against Radtke because the department has enough trouble conducting day-to-day operations without having to investigate the Gray Ghost.
Hesdorffer said people may not choose to pursue charges against Radtke because he’s difficult to catch and graffiti doesn’t rank as a priority when compared to murder, rape or robbery.
“But I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some people who, if they knew of an easy path to do so, might take the steps to prosecute Mr. Radtke,” Hesdorffer said.
The NOPD, however, has no intention of charging Radtke with the defacing of public or private property and praises his efforts in reducing crime and improving the city’s quality of life.
“What he’s doing is work that the city would be doing itself provided we had the resources and manpower,” said NOPD spokesman Sgt. Joe Narcisse. “He’s covering up graffiti and if the city had a team to do that it would do so. He’s not doing anything that we aren’t asking him to do.”•