Bill Tsourapas has seen the future, and it is graffiti remover.
Three years ago he was a gawky 17-year-old Gordon Tech High School senior hanging around his father's auto mechanic shop. That's where he heard a customer, Joe Coligado, describing his latest invention: a no-frills solution that erased graffiti--ink or paint--with an easy swipe of the hand.
Coligado, who operates Resource International, Inc., a suburban chemical company, had been trying to raise the money to market his product. "He was getting turned down all over the place," Tsourapas says. "There were just a bunch of venture capitalists out there who wanted to create a company and then immediately sell it. They didn't care about the product."
The more Coligado talked, the more excited Tsourapas became. Ever since operating his first lemonade stand at age eight, he had dreamed of making millions in business. And as he stood there listening to Coligado, he became convinced that graffiti remover was the ticket to the top. After all, more and more kids Tsourapas's age were into tagging, and graffiti was everywhere.
"I talked Joe into making me a partner," says Tsourapas. "I guess he was pretty desperate to turn to a 17-year-old kid. But I have a lot of ambition. And he liked that."
Under the deal, Coligado makes the potion at his chemical plant in Bedford Park. Tsourapas and his childhood friend, George Markopoulos, a 20-year-old business student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, have an exclusive distribution and service contract. "I grew up on the same block," says Markopoulos. "I also ran a lemonade stand. What can I say? Some kids are into sports, others are into business."
This year Tsourapas and Markopoulos generated about $22,000 worth of business in a cleaning season that runs roughly from April to November. "We've done dozens of demonstrations," says Tsourapas. "We've driven up to buildings and offered to clean their walls."
"For free," adds Markopoulos.
"Well, at least for a lot less than we ought to," says Tsourapas. "I tell you, we never realized it was going to be this tough to make a million. It's the kind of thing they don't teach you in business school. But we think we have the solution to the city's graffiti problem. The stuff looks horrible. All we need is someone to give our product a chance."
Police contend that the graffiti epidemic that's spread across the city over the last decade began in near-northwest Hispanic neighborhoods, but it's long since moved beyond one ethnic group or community. A few years ago, some art lovers were convinced that graffiti was a kind of folk art. But that talk has faded, and now just about anyone who lives in the inner city or owns property there curses the stuff.
"It's a blotch on a city; it's an ugly stain on a neighborhood," says Mary Neigebauer. Neigebauer is president of Quality Real Estate Management and vice president of the Hollywood North Park Improvement Association, a near-northwest-side community group that Tsourapas cleaned a building for last summer. "It's damaging to other people's property. It makes it look like people don't care about their property. It looks like you have a gang of kids who have nothing better to do but destroy and damage. And it has a detrimental effect on property value. When I take people into a neighborhood they're looking at the amenities, the schools, the shopping, but they're also looking for telltale signs of gangs," though lots of graffiti is done by independent taggers, kids not affiliated with gangs. "When they see the graffiti they're going to think twice about moving in."
For the moment, no solution seems to work, not even tougher laws and harsher penalties. If anything, the threat of arrest and the danger involved only motivates the more obsessed taggers. One 19-year-old tagger recently arrested for defacing property near the Merchandise Mart continues spray painting el platforms and train tracks even though he saw a friend die by stepping on a third rail, according to a December 12 Lerner newspaper article by Donal Quinlan.
"It smelled like death and pain," the teenager told Quinlan. "But tagging is an addiction. It is worse than cocaine, caffeine, or cigarettes. It is a rush. . . . It is an adventure. It is fun knowing you can get away, knowing you know more than authority."
For a while city officials thought they could stop the problem by banning the sale of spray paint to anyone under the age of 18. But that backfired--kids either went outside the city limits to buy paint or had older siblings or friends buy it for them.
Then earlier this year came a proposal to ban the sale of spray paint within the city altogether. That raised a hue and cry from the paint industry, who felt that their retailers, distributors, and law-abiding customers were being unfairly punished for the bad deeds of a few lawbreakers. The city dropped the proposal in exchange for some cooperation from the paint industry.
"The Chicago Paint and Coatings Association has agreed to donate up to five gallons of paint, as well as rollers and brushes, to community groups who want to paint out graffiti," says Eddie Arruza, press secretary for the Department of Streets and Sanitation. "That's the association's way of working with us to solve this problem. I guess they think it's better than banning the sale of spray paint."
The problem with paint-outs, however, is that they act as an invitation to taggers to return to the scene of the crime. "Basically, you're giving them an easel to work on," says Neigebauer. "You're giving them a fresh wall to paint over. We paint over a lot of walls in our community because you have to keep up with them. But it's very frustrating to paint over graffiti and then see it up there again a few days later."
The Park District uses expensive, state-of-the-art water-pressure sprayers to erase graffiti from its property. They take the paint off, but they also ruin the exteriors of brick or stone buildings. "After a while, you end up destroying your property," says Tsourapas. "It's not worth it."
The CTA struck on a novel approach a few years ago when it began painting subway stops in garish blends of orange, red, and yellow--a combination that may be more obnoxious than the graffiti.
"Every solution has its limitations," says Tsourapas. "They're either costly or labor-intensive. That's where our formula comes in." Coligado won't say what's in his formula--"I don't want to give away my secrets to the competition"--but he will say that part of the secret is a sealer he also invented.
"The first step is to take the graffiti off with the cleaner," says Tsourapas. "And that's easy because this stuff really works. You can use a pressure sprayer, like a water hose. Or you can just wipe it off. That way you don't deface the property with paint and you don't have to blast the building with harsh water-pressure guns. After that we put on the sealer. If someone comes back and tags the building again, the paint or ink will never touch the pores of the brick surface. It will only go on the sealer. Then all you have to do is wash the graffiti off with the graffiti remover."
To prove his point, Tsourapas takes me into the bathroom of a restaurant, and scrubs graffiti from its toilet stall. "We do demonstrations like this everywhere we go," he says. "We see a place where there's a lot of graffiti and we go right up to the door and ask the owner if he wants a demonstration."
They even stop potential customers on the street. "We met Bill by accident," says Neigebauer. "That was the day we were removing graffiti from a store and Bill came by and said, 'That's my business and you're doing it all wrong.' He showed us how his stuff worked and I was amazed."
What Tsourapas would really like is a city or Park District contract. "We came close with the CHA," he says. "That was in 1988. We were bidding on a $1.2 million deal to remove graffiti at Cabrini-Green. We thought we had a good chance because we're a minority business. Joe Coligado is Asian and one of his partners is black."
"We spent hours at Cabrini going over the buildings, preparing our proposal," adds Markopoulos. "We were there every day from 8 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon for three weeks. But we never heard from the CHA."
With that deal went their dreams of island vacations, new clothes, and Ferraris. But they aren't giving up.
"Last year we did a demonstration for the Park District at a field house by the lake," says Tsourapas. "There must have been 30 people watching and they were all real impressed. I thought for sure we'd get a contract out of that, but no, not yet. We're just two kids from the city looking to make our fortune. That's what it's all about, isn't it? And we're so close, man. We're so close."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.