Fred Radtke saw the writing on the wall—and he didn't like it one bit. The plaster surface bordered a cemetery on New Orleans's historic Canal Street, and as Radtke drove by one sultry day in 1997, "I realized the graffiti had begun to depress me." A lesser man might have altered his route; Radtke, a self-employed special-events producer, talked a paint-store owner into donating several gallons and set out to obliterate the blight. "The graffiti bled through the paint," he recalls, "and two weeks later it was just as visible."
That inauspicious start inspired Radtke, 47, to organize Operation: Clean Sweep, a vigorous nonprofit volunteer group that has been making life in the Big Easy miserable for graffitiosi for the past five years. Armed with donated primer, he and his 100 fellow brush-wielders pledge to remove within a week any eyesores reported to their 24-hour hot line. "Fred is a local legend for what he's done," says New Orleans state representative Emile "Peppi" Bruneau of Radtke, who reports that the amount of graffiti has fallen by 65 percent city wide and by 80 percent in the fabled French Quarter. "He didn't wait for someone else to tackle the problem," Bruneau observes. "He went out and solved it himself."
Tagged "the Gray Ghost" by the graffiti gang, because of the gunmetal-colored paint his troops always employ, Radtke averages 24 hours per week patrolling the streets in his 1986 Dodge and estimates he has invested $20,000 of his own in the cleanup campaign. According to wife Patricia, 47, a writer, Radtke may have become just a tad "consumed by graffiti"—last year their Christmas card showed him leaning from a fire department ladder, swabbing off a two-story building. "Cleaning graffiti is a little like owning an alligator farm," he says. "Some of them are big, some are small, but they all bite."
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