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A Midnight Ride with BU’s Graffiti Cop

Patrolwoman goes after vandals while you sleep

It's 1am and BU Police officer Nancy O'Loughlin is on the prowl

Grafitti-A sought-after expert on graffiti culture, she patrols by bike, pedaling through the dark alleyways and dimly lit side streets around campus looking for graffiti taggers and the spray-painted evidence they leave behind.

O’Loughlin sees that a tagger who goes by the street name “Why,” spray-painted in curvy, stylized lettering, has hit an alley wall, a dumpster, and a mailbox, all within blocks of the Boston University police station.

She registers dismay. “I don’t know him,” she says wryly. “Yet.”

In more than 30 years on the job, O’Loughlin has arrested hundreds of graffiti taggers, so many that even her enemies know her by name. It is a source of pride that she busted famed street artist Shepard Fairey, who was booked on graffiti charges in 2009 just hours before his work opened in a major retrospective at the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston.

She has made it her career mission to stop graffiti, whether a scribbled tag on a building or an elaborate work of art. Anything done without permission of a property owner is plainly disrespectful, she says. It’s also expensive. BU alone spends tens of thousands of dollars a year to clean up graffiti, and the problem seems to be getting worse.

For decades, taggers have risked serious injury or death spray-painting a wall that runs along a bridge near the commuter rail in the Fenway.

For decades, taggers have risked serious injury or death spray-painting a wall that runs along a bridge near the commuter rail in the Fenway.

A BU police officer since 2013, O’Loughlin works the midnight to 8 am shift and patrols the area looking for new tags, documenting them, and building her case files.

She is so good at it that police departments around the world, including the New York City Police Department, have sought her expertise. In the 1990s, as a detective lieutenant with the MBTA, she even helped write Massachusetts graffiti laws, which are among the strictest in the nation.

Although in her late 50s and a grandmother, the five-foot-one O’Loughlin plays wing in a women’s hockey league as a way to blow off steam. She also brings to her work a level of bravado that Dirty Harry would admire.

“It’s a big cat and mouse game,” O’Loughlin says, hopping off her bike to study a series of new tags in an alleyway. “And I’m the cat that’s going to get you.”

Graffiti taggers have covered a dumpster in the Fenway area with tags like X-Pils, Blush, and Why, just to make their mark.

Graffiti taggers have covered a dumpster in the Fenway area with tags like X-Pils, Blush, and Why, just to make their mark.

Back in the heyday of so-called “trainbombing,” recent Northeastern University graduate O’Loughlin landed a job as an MBTA transit cop. Taggers working in the early morning hours could cover entire subway cars with elaborate graffiti, and removing it was costing the MBTA more than a million dollars a year.

When she and a group of other officers found a tagger’s backpack containing a photo of a crew of taggers, the young mother of two decided to make it her mission to identify each one. She did that much the way she still does, she says, by watching closely, talking to people, and putting clues together with shoe-leather detective work. The work can sometimes take years.

“I can’t say how I do it or they’ll know how I figure it out,” O’Loughlin says. “But by the time I’m done building a case, it’s airtight.”

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Bragging rights on social media

Although their marks might be confused with the graffiti that denotes gang turf, she says, taggers are very often white suburban males, anywhere from the teens to middle age. They throw their name and their designs up on walls, overpasses, and other far-flung places to gain bragging rights on social media and among their peers.

O’Loughlin has had a role in the arrests of some of the most notorious and prolific, among them Adam Brandt, a 27-year-old lumberyard worker from the North Shore who went by the street name Spek. Police believe that Spek, who ran with a crew called Illustrate Total Destruction, was personally responsible for hundreds of thousands of dollars in property damage to buses, trucks, and train cars from Boston to Salem before he was caught in 2009.

And then there was the 2009 Fairey arrest.

O’Loughlin and her longtime partner, Boston police detective Bill Kelley, were part of a team that charged Fairey with more than two dozen offenses after he pasted his work, without permission, on walls around the city, some of them historic properties in the Back Bay.

Because Fairey was by that time a celebrated artist with an international reputation, well-known for his “Hope” poster depicting President Barack Obama, some thought the arrest made Boston seem parochial and out of touch. Boston may be the “only place in America where Shepard Fairey…is not fully feeling the love,” the New York Times speculated. The Boston Globe predicted the arrest would keep artists away from the city.

O’Loughlin wishes the prediction had been accurate. She says she has no regrets about the arrest, although she acknowledges a backlash from some local politicians. “Regardless of what’s put up, if you don’t have permission, what gives you the right?” she says.

O’Loughlin has arrested hundreds of graffiti taggers since 1983 and has confiscated a massive collection of their materials, including taggers’ sketchbooks, photos of their work, and business cards. Many taggers practice in sketchbooks they call bibles, perfecting their designs in advance so they can execute quickly. O’Loughlin’s extensive confiscated collection fills boxes in the basement of her South Shore home.

Over the years, she has confiscated etching equipment from vandals who carved their name into subway windows. She has a foot-long hunting knife that one of her taggers told her was for protection and magnets taggers have put in the exterior bottom of their spray-paint cans to silence any sound made by the loose steel pellet within.

Her daughter, Casey O’Loughlin, a BUPD dispatcher, says her mother has earned her reputation because she cares deeply about the community and the people who are affected by reckless behavior. And she is a formidable presence, whether parenting, playing in a hockey tournament, or riding her bike on patrol at 2 am.

“She’s intimidating 24/7,” the 26-year-old says with a laugh.

O’Loughlin could patrol by car, but a bicycle gives her the view from the ground, she says. In fact, she doesn’t even have to focus on graffiti investigations per se. She does it because it’s a public service, and she says it keeps her mind and body active.

“She’s always out there looking for it,” says Robert Molloy (MET’91), BU deputy police chief. “It’s a mission for her.”

On a recent night, that mission takes her through a back alley between BU and the CSX rail yard. She rides soundlessly, stopping to examine four large bubble letters in spray paint that appear to spell “YOSA” on a cinderblock wall. “I don’t know this one,” she says.

“But I’d like to meet him.”

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at mwj@bu.edu.

12 Comments

12 Comments on A Midnight Ride with BU’s Graffiti Cop

  • S on 05.09.2018 at 6:56 am

    I like to thank officer O’Loughlin and her fellow officers on trying to catch the graffiti offenders.

    How about we require the offenders clean up their vandalism with a tooth brush during the summer ;)

  • Caleb D. on 05.09.2018 at 9:16 am

    Great piece, Meg!

  • Student and artist on 05.09.2018 at 11:14 am

    Good write up. I wonder if BU ever works with artists to figure out ways to collaborate and allocate commissioned works/murals – not only as a way to deter repeat offense to large spaces, but also as a way to show BU’s commitment to celebrating the arts and its “urban mission” so often touted?

    This (as in “art,” not using property w/o permission and being an expense to others) is part of the city-life landscape and I wonder if there are ways to embrace parts of it – legally and creatively.

    • Talk to... on 05.09.2018 at 3:03 pm

      the Dean of Students Office about an art installation. There’s that hideous rock that everyone spray paints each year. Talk to them about installing a mural, maybe repurpose concrete slabs. Same thing with Boston, talk to city hall about art installations around town. And hit up Brookline while you’re at it. There is a way, but you need to ask and offer good suggestions with backup as to why it works and who it benefits, and how.

  • Logic rules on 05.09.2018 at 11:43 am

    Great Story!

  • Vika Zafrin on 05.09.2018 at 2:58 pm

    I think Student and artist’s suggestion above is a good one. How about it, BU?

  • Anthony on 05.09.2018 at 6:02 pm

    And you wonder why BU and even Boston police in general get the reputation of being out of touch and aloof. Boston really needs to overcome its puritanical misgivings in general if it truly wants to recognized as a modern world class city. Seriously, what kind of joke university cop takes pride in throwing world famous artists in jail with enormously cultural impactful art. There is clearly a difference between destructive vandalism and urban art that BU has yet recognize.

  • Siobhan Flynn on 05.09.2018 at 6:16 pm

    I feel like this article horribly represents graffiti culture. Graffiti artists, at least the ones who aren’t largely known with huge installations, do not brag about their work to others, especially not online. Artists keep a low profile and do not go around bragging and proclaiming to others that they tagged a certain spot. If they tell others, it’s a small group of people that they know. The article makes it seem as if there’s an online popularity contest for who can become the most Instagram famous based off of where they are able to tag. That’s just not the case at all. This interpretation completely misrepresents a lot of graffiti artists and their work which is not damage. They create art on surfaces and do not render train cars or buildings non functional. I absolutely love seeing graffiti when I walk around because it breathes so much life and color into the city. The more you pay attention and travel around, it can be fun when you remember and notice a certain artist in multiple places. Graffiti art isn’t an activity that’s widely organized, but there is an established code that most respectable artists abide by and consider when they pick the spots they want to tag. Most artists understand that you shouldn’t go tagging impressive architecture or old historic landmarks because of how valuable and unique they are. Individuals that do this are definitely disrespectful, and perhaps if the city doesn’t want landmarks to be tagged, they should have security that watches over those areas that are actually of value to our culture and history as a city. Graffiti can also create an industry for the city if it is embraced. In the Arts Distract of LA, artists move into the city specifically to have the chance to showcase and share their work on the streets (which the city allows them to do). There are entire businesses founded off of teaching people about graffiti and giving tours to tourists who are eager to glimpse graffiti and street art. If Boston embraced street art, it would create a more positive environment.

  • No on 05.23.2018 at 4:19 pm

    They complain about graffiti but then use the very same influence for their article design. Like a “spray painted” font for the drop caps ? Come on now choose a side or don’t write about it.

  • RYZE 5AV on 06.03.2018 at 2:23 pm

    To me it is very sad to seeing Nancy O’Loughlin bicycling around in now a smaller jurisdiction, but largely the same circles that It looks like she’s been emotionally lost in for more than 30 years. This article presents her as a dogged solider in a just and present war. Those with experienced eyes and knowledge of the landscape see a ghost holding on desperately to a battle that ended long ago.

    Missing from the article are Nancy’s own troubles with the law and why she is no longer with the MBTA police force. Her role in Massachusetts having some of the most draconian laws regarding graffiti in our entire country could only be a badge of honor to those who have their eyes closed to its effects. The phrase ‘banned in boston’ is only one of pride to those stuck in a mindset void of cultural openness and awareness. Arresting Shepard at the height of his mainstream acceptance illustrates this superbly.

    Law enforcement personnel who focus on graffiti find themselves doing a complicated psychological dance with it. They obsess over the writers, collect any and all artifacts of their work and often after apprehending them, get them to autograph a black book of their own where they collect the tags of their prey. They effectively transform themselves into fans of something they simultaneously love and hate.

    I’ve noticed that sometimes when we can’t acknowledge our own fears and misguided actions we instead focus on pursuing and punishing others. I suspect that the level of intensity the Nancy has shown us in her fascination with Boston’s graffiti writers for more than 3 decades would indicate the level of inner journey that may sadly remain unattended to.

    I sincerely wish that someday Nancy will be able to find peace with herself and her surroundings.

  • Yubo Dong on 06.10.2018 at 2:40 pm

    Any professional’s fame and great achievements deserve much credit and respect. I really appreciate Nancy’s contributions to the society.

  • PU on 06.20.2018 at 8:06 am

    Siobhan wrote, ” and perhaps if the city doesn’t want landmarks to be tagged, they should have security that watches over those areas that are actually of value to our culture and history as a city.” Well that is a rich perspective. How about this idea – don’t deface anything not yours? I for one appreciate an officer biking at 2am while I sleep at night. For my part, I find that using Krylon Royal Blue covers up the ‘art’ on mailboxes quite nicely.

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