The irregular squares and rectangles of paint, usually gray, appeared so rapidly and efficiently over fresh graffiti that the man responsible for them became known on the streets as the Gray Ghost.    

Lately, however, the Gray Ghost and his helpers have getting some unaccustomed scrutiny. Fred Radtke, the former Marine behind the graffiti-fighting gray squares, was arrested in October after his Operation Clean Sweep was caught painting over a mural on a Bywater business that very much wanted the work intact. He was soon released with a court summons for property damage.

It was a strange turn-around for Radtke and Operation Clean Sweep, which have long enjoyed a collegial relationship with local law enforcement and other civic agencies. Formed in 1997, the nonprofit Operation Clean Sweep is the formalized organization for Radtke’s long-running crusade against graffiti, which many official law enforcement sources say can often be part of criminal intimidation as the vandals responsible “claim turf” and, if unchecked, lead to further criminal activity.

 So for years, Radtke has cruised the city with buckets of donated paint in the trunk of his car, stopping whenever he sees a spot of graffiti to obliterate its message. Volunteers with his group have expanded its reach, and a graffiti hotline it maintains has been credited with saving the New Orleans Police Department countless hours in responding to such calls. He even played a key role in creating anti-graffiti legislation under which property owners who neglect graffiti can be fined by the city until they remove it.

 But the virtues of the Operation Clean Sweep campaign, like some of the spray painted markings it covers up, may lie in the eye of the beholder. Critics have long complained that while his gray squares cover a graffiti marking, they tend to attract more in short order and are themselves eyesores, effectively replacing one mode of vandalism with another. Others have complained that Operation Clean Sweep conducts its work without asking or consulting with property owners.
The controversy has intensified since Hurricane Katrina. There has been a proliferation of street art, often aimed at improving the morale and community spirit of residents as they return and rebuild, and in some cases this has come under Operation Clean Sweep’s sights along with common graffiti tags. In other cases, vandals have left graffiti specifically calling out Radtke and Operation Clean Sweep, like escalations in a graffiti arms race.

The mural in the Bywater that landed Operation Clean Sweep in legal trouble was quickly restored. Meanwhile, the gray paint continues to appear all over town.