For 28 years, Don Olund said, he was a once-man graffiti-removing machine.
“The best I can figure it is that I really like making things look new again,” said Olund, who retired from his job with the Downtown Phoenix Partnership last month.
Olund was hired in 1992 as a downtown ambassador, someone who assists people navigating downtown. “My supervisor was showing me around,” Olund recalled. “We got to Jackson Street tunnel and he said, ‘As a courtesy, we cover up the graffiti down here.’”
At the time, he wondered about the more visible graffiti on Washington and Roosevelt and Van Buren streets. No one was officially in charge of removing it.
A few months later, Olund bought painting supplies on his own dime and began removing tags around town. That first year, he figured, he probably removed about 500 pieces of graffiti.
“I was just getting going,” he said. “Mailboxes and dumpsters, gosh. Walls and windows and posts. The second year, I removed closer to 1,000 tags, and the next year it was 1,200.”
After a while, the Downtown Partnership made graffiti removal Olund’s thing. “I was the guy,” he said. “I put two big baskets on my bike, plus a trunk on the handlebars. I had 30 cans of spray paint, cleaners, brushes, rags — everything I needed."
By then, Olund figured he was eradicating about 1,300 pieces of outsider art per year. He’d become known as the Graffiti Guru. One guy called him Don Van Gogh because he got really good at matching colors. Colleagues referred to him as Don Houdini because he made graffiti disappear.
“I knew the business owners, the street people by name,” Olund boasted. “I had home phone numbers for the landlords so I could tell them if they’d been vandalized.”
He wasn’t happy, he said, until his paint-overs were an exact match. If you could tell where the graffiti had been, he had failed. “If it was half-assed, I wasn’t doing my job,” he explained.
Olund thought he understood the fine line between art and graffiti. Some of the tags he found were so nicely done, he almost regretted covering them up. But street artists needed permission before painting over public property, he figured. Street artists felt differently, of course.
“I’ve been threatened, harassed, you name it,” Olund chuckled. “One time I was removing a tag and the guy who’d done it explained very clearly how he was going to mess me up for painting over his work. I moseyed on away and came back later to finish removing his tag.”
On another occasion, Olund was mistaken for a tagger himself. “I was removing a big black tag from the back of the Firestone building on Third Avenue,” he said. “And this woman came up behind me and just went crazy. ‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing! I’m appalled! I’m going to report you to the city!’”
Removing graffiti could be a game of cat and mouse. Olund would erase a tag in the morning and it would return in the same spot that afternoon. Occasionally, he felt like he was at war with graffiti artists.
“Street art is constructive, but graffiti is destructive,” is how Olund sees it. “Tagging scars the urban landscape and accelerates urban decay.”
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By the time he retired in May, Olund figured he’d removed between 45,000 and 50,000 tags. “To this day, it seems crazy,” he said. “One guy riding around with two buckets of paint on each handlebar. But it was a great job.”
He said he missed cleaning up downtown. “I don’t want to take a shot at anyone, but it drives me a little crazy when I see tags,” he confided. “I’d usually remove a tag within an hour of discovering it, and never more than 24 hours after.” People who don’t know he’s gone still call him about tags they want him to remove. They text him photos. “Where are you?” they ask.
In recent weeks, Olund had seen graffiti removals that he wouldn’t put his name on. But he didn’t like to brag.
“I got really good at what I did,” he said. “It was really just me, a guy on a bike. And ever since I retired, I can kind of feel the graffiti creeping back into downtown.”