The owner of a Manassas Park area restaurant has no problem reading the writing on the wall: the letters are bright blue and six feet in height. The trouble is he can’t take it down.
Gregorio Martinez, owner of Confety’s Restaurant, says he is working hard to alter the reputation of his establishment, once notorious for violent showdowns between rival Hispanic street gangs. Martinez has doubled his security personnel in the last two years – from three to six – and denies entry to anyone wearing baggy pants, bandannas or baseball caps worn any way but straight.
Martinez also painted over Mara Salvatrucha, MS-13, graffiti on the restaurant’s walls. The graffiti appeared about five months ago, he says.
But some of the writing on the wall remains frustratingly beyond Martinez’s reach – and jurisdiction.
Several paces north of Confety’s, MS-13 graffiti sprawls over a 42-foot stretch along the south wall of a Nextel store, separated from the restaurant by a narrow driveway. In some places the blue spray-painted letters exceed six feet in height.
The graffiti is visible to patrons entering Martinez’s restaurant, but not to those entering Nextel, whose entrance is above the level of the graffiti. Martinez says the graffiti has been there for four months. The graffiti has been in place at least since Nov. 21, 2005, when it was photographed by the Potomac News.
Martinez said he has tried to contact the owner of the Nextel in the past and as recently as two weeks ago, but was unsuccessful.
“I’ve been thinking about cleaning it myself,” Martinez said.
Legally, he can’t.
Removing graffiti on private property in Prince William County requires the consent of the owner. Sgt. Greg Pass – who heads Prince William County’s gang unit – said he knew about the MS-13 graffiti outside of Confety’s, but the police department could not take it down without the owner’s consent.
Nextel leases the property on 8216 Centerville Road from a landlord, who Nextel employees identified as Joe Shevitz. A phone call to the number given as Shevitz’s fetched the office of Cash Communications, where an employee said Shevitz left two years ago.
Catherine Delgado, an administrative assistant for Nextel, said the store manager, Rick Rice, had spoken to Shevitz one day when the latter came in. She did not remember when the conversation took place, and said she could not release a phone number for Rice.
Rice did not respond to several requests for comment over two weeks.
“It’s a tough problem to deal with because you have to go through so many layers,” says Jennifer Roberts, program coordinator for the Prince William Clean Community Council.
The PWCCC – a nonprofit organization partially funded by the county – fields about 40 volunteers who pick up litter and educate citizens about proper waste disposal practices. “We send volunteers to paint over graffiti, but it bogs down when you have to go through a property manager,” Roberts said.
Roberts noticed the graffiti at Nextel on March 2, and asked the store manager to remove the graffiti, providing a list of companies that could remove it.
PWCCC volunteers do not remove gang graffiti, which Roberts said might put them in harm’s way.
Around the county, gang-related graffiti crops up where store owners have little incentive to keep their walls clean, or where the responsibility for cleaning up is not clearly drawn between the landlord and the business.
In the Shoppers Square where Confety’s is located, at least seven instances of gang graffiti appear along the outer wall that separates the shopping center from a sparsely wooded area. The area is also strewn with paper trash, glass bottles and larger items such as busted furniture and an overturned shopping cart.
“West Side BLOODS” is scrawled in red paint on an exit door of El Primero supermarket, which is managed by Shoppers Food Warehouse. “WSBloodz 202” appears emblazoned in red on the grocery’s black compactor.
General Manager Bill Lightkep said he knew about the graffiti but declined to answer questions about how long it has been there. Richard Pasework, a spokesperson for Shoppers, had not heard about the graffiti.
“We reported it today,” Pasework said after an initial phone call seeking comment. “We’ve called the landlord to inform them. The landlord takes care of the building,” he said. Shoppers will clean the compactor, he said.
Roberts said Maplewood is one of the two “most heavily graffitied shopping centers in the county.”
At the other shopping center noted by Roberts – Prince William Plaza in Woodbridge – MS-13 graffiti looms large on the side of a vacant building.
On a Saturday night, a crowd packs Confety’s and a line stretches out the door, where three security guards sweep metal detectors over all patrons.
As the music changes from bachata to reggaeton, the mostly Hispanic clientele makes its way to the dance floor. Ernesto Martinez, a native of El Salvador and no relation to Gregorio, sits with two friends at the fringes of the crowd.
When asked if they’ve noticed the graffiti, only Ernesto speaks up.
“Yeah, I think I’ve seen it, but I’m not sure where or when,” says Ernesto in Spanish, who installs heating and air conditioning units for a living. “For me it isn’t a problem. I think that the people who do it, well, they have small brains. You know, people of little intelligence.”