The commander of the enemy of Romes graffiti writers, or scrawlers, or mural vandals, virtually acknowledges defeat at the hands of his opponents, whom he thinks must now be counted in their thousands.

The enemy is known as All Clean, a five-year-old anti-vandalism company 51 per cent owned by AMA, the municipal agency for the environment, but its young chairman, Maurizio Venafro, sitting on the eighth floor of a brand-new tower of darkened glass somewhere near EUR, confessed: On the whole, vandalism remains an unsolved problem. What we manage to do is a drop in the ocean, though here and there, such as Via dei Fori Imperiali, things seem to be improving.

The problem is mainly money. Whereas Paris spends from 12-14 million a year on cleaning its walls, and is reaping results, Rome, though smaller, forks out only 5 million. If a kid daubs a wall, then passes by the next day on his motorino and sees its gone, hes going to get discouraged, isnt he?

Yes. And is that happening? He answered: No.

Strangely, he had no idea what penalties offenders face, perhaps because so few are ever picked up. Theyve got to be caught red-handed, which is hard, and when a boy did get caught some time ago, it made the headlines. Venafro seems to exist in a vacuum. No-one in the city administration could be found to talk about the problem of graffiti pedantically defined in a Penguin dictionary to be an incorrect plural of the word sgraffito (scratched), a decorative technique first used in 16th-century Italy.

The word, coined in the early 1970s in New York, where the first whole subway train was coloured in 1976, in keeping with visually dominated American society, landed way behind time in Rome only some eight years ago. Despite its apparently uncontrollable mushrooming since then, peaking in 1997-98, All Clean fields only eight squads of two to three men to rub out its traces, mainly in the city centre, plus another 20 working round the clock on defaced tube trains. To clean walls, the squads pelt them with high-pressure hoses, which squirt out a secret, allegedly non-toxic and non-corrosive chemical, and they can then protect the cleaned result with a colourless, odourless overlay made from natural waxes that only needs washing with hot water to rid it of further accretions.

A lieutenant of Venafro, Pietro Di Marchi, estimated that the squads treat 20,000 square metres a year and said the subject of half of Romes graffiti is sport; another 30 per cent is the work of tribes, or gangs of kids from the same area, delineating their territories with the same tag (or signature), originally a first name followed by a number, that of a New York street. Surprisingly, only 20 per cent of the messages, including insulting ones, are inspired by politics. Love messages come last.

Though detractors have attacked scribblers for allegedly inciting hate and crime, decrying them as anal smearers, Di Marchi fell in with a saner American description of the kids as adolescent males going through rites de passage on the way to building up a profile that might help them cope with adulthood. Amazingly, he disclosed that the squads in Rome had never removed a single design by pure writers, emulators of subway art in New York.

One of the first in Rome calls himself Headache and always colours around Nomentana station. He writes: I like punk, hardcore, metal and hip hop and I hate drugs of any kind. Most writers come from art schools but I think Im one of the few with a diploma in electronics. Another styles himself Raoul of Rome, a second-year university student in industrial design whose beat covers both the Nuova Salaria station and Montesacro. The first tribes in Rome were the Moretouch 2 (tag MT2) and The Riot Vandals (TRV) and, according to a current author on the internet, the idea of treating tube trains was to get pictures travelling fast through the city centre to remind grey faces in the smog of what colours look like

A Roman writer contacted live was 22-year-old Stella, daughter of an accountant and a social worker, who responded to the calling aged 14. Eight years ago, graffiti were almost unknown here and it was exciting to see peoples reaction to what wed done during the night. And the police didnt bother you because there was nothing to get you for. Stella, now veering towards three-dimensional Wild Style in light and dark blue, had a surprise for Venafro. Since theyve called it vandalism, theyre clamping down a lot. We risk much more. Once I saw a night watchman open fire.

She had only scorn for the herds of kid scribblers. They cant even draw. They scribble on renaissance palaces and couldnt care less. Theyre only interested in their own visibility. Theyre stupid. Theyre ruining the movement.