Gene Martel uses lacquer thinner and a rag to clean graffiti off the side of a Subway restaurant. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

VIDEO: Gene Martel is wiping out graffiti in downtown Chilliwack

Armed with brushes, paint and lacquer thinner, Gene Martel is cleaning up the streets of Chilliwack

It’s early in the morning on a Wednesday and Gene Martel is slowly driving through the streets of downtown Chilliwack in a white van.

He makes his way down alleys and through parking lots, going about 10 km/h, staring at the walls and doors of buildings. A storage shelf in his van creaks as the vehicle turns corners and goes over bumps. He looks up in his rear-view mirror frequently to see if he’s holding anyone up.

And then he spots it — graffiti. It’s small, about six inches long and reads #SMELLY or #SHELLY, but still, it needs to be removed.

“That’s a wiper,” he says.

He’s referring to how he’ll remove it. This one can be wiped off with lacquer thinner and a rag. Some graffiti gets painted over, some is removed first with lacquer thinner or xylene and then a coat of paint is applied.

Martel has been a painter for 52 years. He owned Martel Painting for about 17 years before retiring. When the Downtown Chilliwack BIA called him two years ago inquiring if he wanted to be part of making Chilliwack more beautiful, he couldn’t say no.

“I gotta have something to do or I’d go nuts,” he laughs. “When I first started, my goodness, what a mess this city was in.”

For two years he’s been helping fulfill one of the purposes of the BIA: “To help improve and beautify commercial areas.”

He recalls taking a walk around downtown Chilliwack when he first started the job and he could not believe how much graffiti was hidden.

“The deal I made with them is… I’m out there two hours, sometimes three, sometimes even more… but I will only charge you an hour and a half a day. Basically it’s just to give back.”

Martel typically starts his day shortly after the sun comes up, looking high and low for graffiti.

“I like to get out early. It’s much easier getting around everywhere if you don’t have to worry about so many cars being in the way,” he says. “I can pull over anywhere.”

He’s only “supposed” to do buildings, he says, but he often also removes graffiti from bus shelters, utility boxes and dumpsters — places the city is responsible for.

“If I see it, it’s coming off,” he says.

Taggers use spray paint, indelible ink, and even tar. Whatever they use, Martel knows right away how to get rid of it. Glass is the easiest surface from which to remove graffiti, brick and plywood are the most difficult.

“I don’t mind it. I enjoy doing it. You get to meet a lot of people, you get out every day, and being retired it’s nice to have something to do,” he says. “If I could afford it, I’d do it for nothing.”

When he first started, he’d be removing 30 to 50 tags during a two-week period. Now, he’s at about 30 in one month. Additionally, he’s noticed the size of graffiti has gotten smaller. Many used to be several feet long, the size you’d see on boxcars.

“That basically ended after about a year because they would do it, put all the work into it at night, and first thing in the morning it was gone,” says Martel.

Now the graffiti he sees is about the size of a dinner plate.

“As long as I can keep it off, it doesn’t get worse,” he says. “It’s like a challenge. I’m gonna beat these little buggers, I wanna beat them.”

Martel thinks graffiti is “senseless” and agrees the current system is working. He’s noticed graffiti in downtown Chilliwack has actually been decreasing over the past two years.

He’s even caught people in the act and when he does “I just tell them not to do that. I’ve been sworn at, told where to go, what flight to take.”

“I’ll just tell them to move,” and he cleans it up right in front of them.

On this day, he’s cleaning up a large piece of red graffiti on the vinyl siding of a downtown Subway restaurant.

The floor of Martel’s van is completely filled with paint cans, plus he’s built a shelf along the driver’s side wall which is also home to gallons of paint. He figures he has about 140 cans in his van, each marked with the name of the business. If he doesn’t know which business it is, he writes the address on top of the can. They’re in no particular order, he just sticks new paint cans in wherever they’ll fit.

Martel makes regular trips to Cloverdale Paint, where he gets help trying to match a building’s paint colour or finish as best he can.

“A mis-match of paint is a lot better than graffiti itself,” he says.

He’ll often ask businesses for samples of their paint, especially when it’s newly painted, so he has something on hand if graffiti shows up. He even keeps empty paint cans in his van in case he sees a building being painted, and asks for some.

“A lot of people are really grateful that [I’m] doing it.”

Today, he’s successfully matched the paint colour at Subway. He pumps his fist as he walks away, packs up his paint brush and drives down Williams Street looking for more graffiti.

Within 30 seconds, he sees a familiar sight.

“Hey I won!” he exclaims driving by a utility box and pointing. “There was one guy putting one tag on that every day, every day. And every day I would take it off. It’s not there anymore.”

What would he say to the taggers in Chilliwack?

“Keep trying. We’ll see who wins. It does look like I’m winning.”


@PhotoJennalism
jenna.hauck@theprogress.com

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

 

(Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

(Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

(Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

He looks high and low for graffiti. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

Gene Martel uses lacquer thinner and a rag to clean graffiti off the side of a Subway restaurant. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

Gene Martel uses lacquer thinner and a rag to clean graffiti off the side of a Subway restaurant. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

Gene Martel uses lacquer thinner and a rag to clean graffiti off the side of a Subway restaurant. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

The back of Gene Martel’s van has about 140 cans of paint. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

He writes down every piece of graffiti he’s removed. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

Red handed after removing graffiti. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

Matching the paint sample at Cloverdale Paint. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

Gene Martel cleans up. (Jenna Hauck The Progress)

He returns to Subway to paint over the reddish tinge left behind. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

He returns to Subway to paint over the reddish tinge left behind. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

Gene Martel pumps his fist after successfully removing the red graffiti. (Jenna Hauck/ The Progress)

Just Posted

Vedder Rotary trail network in Chilliwack will be closed for five days on the south side

The upgrade will take until Friday so trail users asked to take alternate routes

Chilliwack encouraged to commemorate liberation of Holland

Planning already underway to mark the 75th anniversary of the event

UPDATE: RCMP confirm body of missing Chilliwack senior found

Ethel ‘Grace’ Baranyk had severe dementia

RCMP urge caution for back to school drivers

Police are asking drivers to slow down and watch for pedestrians

UPDATE: Police response on Cheam First Nation a ‘non-event’, RCMP say

More than two dozen RCMP and ERT vehicles were at the First Nation looking for a known fugitive

B.C. sockeye returns drop as official calls 2019 ‘extremely challenging’

Federal government says officials are seeing the same thing off Alaska and Washington state

Expanded support to help B.C. youth from care attend university still falling short

Inadequate support, limited awareness and eligibility restrictions some of the existing challenges

Ethnic media aim to help maintain boost in voting by new Canadians

Statistics Canada says new Canadians made up about one-fifth of the voting population in 2016

Cross-examination begins for B.C. dad accused of killing young daughters

Andrew Berry is charged in the deaths of six-year-old Chloe and four-year-old Aubrey in 2017

Dog attacked by river otters, Penticton owner says

Marie Fletcher says her dog was pulled underwater by four river otters in the Penticton Channel

BC SPCA overwhelmed with cats, kittens needing homes

Large number of cruelty investigations, plus normal ‘kitten season’ to blame

Memorial to deceased teen stays in place through Labour Day

Hundreds of tributes have been left at the Walnut Grove skate park

Wife charged in husband’s death in Sechelt

Karin Fischer has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of her husband, Max

Most Read