For decades they have been dismissed as the abstract doodlings of wandering minds. Yet the traditional students' pastime of sketching in their notebooks is to become the latest weapon in tackling Britain's epidemic of vandalism.
Police are to photograph thousands of pupils' jotter-book etchings to tackle an upsurge in graffiti spraying. Officers have begun entering classrooms to record the scribbles of pupils, using the latest mobile phone technology to identify distinctive signatures and styles.
Images of etchings are captured on camera phones, emailed to police headquarters and stored in a database of graffiti tags, the trademark sign of the urban street 'artist'. Detectives can then compare them with images of spray paint vandalism in towns and cities.
Officers in Tayside, the area of Scotland centred on Dundee, are testing photo-messaging technology and have reported immediate success. The force has seen a 15 per cent increase in vandalism detection rates, including the arrest of a street artist who caused £100,000 worth of damage to public buildings.
Police chiefs in metropolitan areas such as Manchester, Leeds and London are talking to the Orange mobile phone company about adopting the technology. The telecoms giant says other forces have expressed interest in using camera phones to curbgraffiti.
Chief Superintendent Ian Alexander, a divisional commander with Tayside police, said photographing 'school jotters' offered significant savings in cleaning up the costs of vandalism.
However, the use of camera phones in the classroom has raised concerns over privacy and data protection issues. A number of gyms and swimming pools have already banned their use to safeguard the privacy of customers.
Civil liberties groups remain unconvinced by the use of student notebooks in tackling crime. A spokesman for Liberty dismissed their use as 'gimmicky'. 'It doesn't seem to get anywhere near tackling the complex causes of graffiti,' he added. 'I can imagine an entertaining court case where various experts have to identify a given style. I am sceptical that it would be foolproof.'
Vandalism offences carry a maximum sentence of three months' imprisonment, rising to six months for subsequent offences. Officers believe using mobile phone cameras in classrooms will help deter youngsters from a career in crime.
Removing graffiti is a big expense for local authorities. Schools, at the centre of a funding row, spend £39 million a year cleaning up graffiti and vandalism. The problem is so serious that an advertising campaign was launched recently to dispel the image of graffiti as cool. Posters saying 'Only Tossers Tag' have appeared in London schools. The capital's mayor, Ken Livingstone, has urged shopowners not to sell spray paints to anyone under 18, claiming the defacing of public spaces costs London £100m a year.
As high-pressure water hoses and detergents become more effective at removing paint, graffiti artists are turning to tools such as drill bits to etch tags on the windows of buses or trains. Train operator Connex spends £5m a year removing graffiti.