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Police anger reaches new heights over Mook's daredevil graffiti

Friday, October 05, 2001

By Timothy McNulty, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The slang term "mook" means a knucklehead or idiot. For the city's Public Works Department, which has been eluded and taunted by a daredevil graffiti writer named Mook for three years now, it also means mounting frustration and anger.

"Mook" taunts the city Public Works Department from the top of the 10th Street Bridge across the Monongahela River. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Like lots of other graffiti writers, Mook has spray-painted his name on structures citywide, mostly around the South Side and Shadyside. But when city crews began cleaning up Mook's messages, he switched to dangerous new tactics.

Mook began spray-painting places that Public Works laborers couldn't easily reach, like tall bridges and highway overpasses. Then he, or perhaps a group of people using his name, started taunting the city in rather daring, or stupid, ways.

The latest taunt was early Tuesday morning when workers on one of the city's "Graffiti Busters" clean-up crews left their truck in a South Side convenience store parking lot for a 3 a.m. lunch break. When the crew returned five minutes later, the name Mook had been etched into the truck's rear window with acid.

The crew filed a report with Pittsburgh Police in the South Side station. But Mook and many of his messages, called tags, remain at large.

The tags stay because it takes the skills of Spiderman to reach some of the places he, or his crew of writers, have been vandalizing.

One message was left atop one of the yellow towers of the 10th Street Bridge for weeks now, after Mook scaled the bridge's suspension cables to spray his name in black paint. Others are painted on an overpass high above the inbound Parkway East and on ramps to the Veterans Bridge.

City Public Works Director Guy Costa marvels that witnesses haven't called 911 while watching Mook at work, or that he hasn't injured or killed himself while scaling the spans. He admits his department has become "very frustrated" with Mook's antics.

"He's got to be rappelling off the sides of these bridges," Costa said. "He's going into areas no one's gone before. I'm surprised he hasn't fallen or gotten hurt. I'd actually like to see that -- see him break his arm or something," the director continued, angrily.

Battling graffiti writers is nothing new for the government agencies that clean city, county and state-owned roads, bridges and signs. Common wisdom says to clean the graffiti as soon as possible to avoid blight and copycats, and to catch and punish the writers whenever possible.

Still, battle tactics have evolved over the years. The city established the Graffiti Busters program in 1997, in which two trucks equipped with high-pressure paint cleaning devices travel citywide. Mayor Tom Murphy has also tried to extend an olive branch and a legal outlet to graffiti writers by allowing them to spray paint walls along the Eliza Furnace trail.

Graffiti writing tactics have changed as well.

When stores ban kids from buying spray paint, they pay adults to buy it for them. When cleaning solvents rid walls of paint too easily, they turn to acid, which vandals have been increasingly using to mar windows of buses, bus stops and other public facilities, according to the Port Authority's spokeswoman, Judi McNeil.

Defenders of graffiti have long said the writers use their messages as a creative outlet, and as a simple thrill. The thrill and the attention is clearly the motivation for Mook, many of whose messages are spray-painted squiggles without much artistic merit -- rather his motivation is bragging rights for his derring-do and the attention the city and the media is giving him.

Mook's tactics aren't new. Graffiti artists have been daredevils for years, climbing across live subway tracks and high atop buildings and bridges.

In a 1985 Timothy Hutton movie called "Turk 182," a graffiti writer pulls many of the same stunts as Mook.

Still, the stunts are clearly getting under the government's skin.

Dick Skrinjar, spokesman for the state Department of Transportation, which owns many of the spans Mook has climbed, wouldn't comment on the graffiti writer by name, simply so he wouldn't give him the attention he craves.

"Never heard of him. Even if we did, we wouldn't address it," he said. "This is bad home training, bad parenting and they should find his parents and punish them."

According to Costa, city officials already have some idea of who Mook is -- a young, former art student who lives on the South Side -- but police have to catch him in the act or have witnesses come forward in order to arrest him.

The department has kept a list of his tags and it will charge him for all of the clean-up costs if he is caught, Costa said.

According to Deputy Mayor Sal Sirabella, some South Side merchants apparently know who Mook is, too, and tried to rough him up a few weeks ago. Shortly thereafter, a new Mook message appeared on a Birmingham Bridge overpass. It said, "So you want to get tough?"

It has since been cleaned off.

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