High-pressure 'blasters' clean up graffiti in Topeka

TOPEKA — Soda wasn't doing it, so Leonard Jones switched to crushed glass.

The city of Topeka code enforcement worker stood under the Kansas Avenue Bridge helping to train corrections employees on how to use the "soda blaster." The fire hose-like contraption blasts away graffiti by shooting a variety of materials, including crushed glass.

"It depends on the surface," Jones had told his students moments earlier. "You can crank it up to 105 psi, if you want. You're going to eat away at concrete at 100 psi."

He grabbed the hose and began battle with the black-and-blue bubble lettering scrawled across the brick. A high-pitched spray exploded onto the paint. Dust plumed, leaving particles in Jones' black shirt he had to shake out later.

The Topeka Police Department will soon double its number of soda blasters from one to two. Thanks to a federal grant, said Lt. Tom Glor, the department will have two of the $25,000 machines that offer a pleasant alternative to the gray paint cover-up commonly used in the past.

"It was an eyesore," Glor said of the paint.

With the extra machine, the Shawnee County Sheriff's Office and corrections officials will have the capability to clean walls as well. Standing in front of the wall Thursday tattooed with bright, blooming colors, Glor called the paintings "art."

"It's almost mural-like," he said, before adding that the art is illegal and that the city of Topeka offers mural walls for would-be artists.

The city has generated a new push to eradicate graffiti within 24 hours of being notified. In March, it announced that anyone with a cell phone camera can snap a picture of graffiti and send it to cleancity@topeka.org. Glor recalled a man who happily reported he had called in a wall tagged with paint on Monday and saw a clean wall by Wednesday.

"For some there's nothing else to do," he said of the artist-vandals. "For others, it's a way of life, a way to mark your territory."

East Topeka continues to be the favorite target, Glor said, and less-traveled places are commonly hit.

Underneath the bridge, the bubble letters were losing. Jones' powerful shot of crushed glass at 100 psi left in its wake bare brick or, in the eyes of those with the spray paint, a fresh canvas.

"That possibility exists," Glor said of new graffiti appearing. "But it's a problem we're getting a handle on."