The giant Grain Belt bottle cap in downtown Minneapolis, which has been celebrating the golden lager for more than 70 years, is more than a billboard. Even the principal of nearby DeLaSalle High School -- no fan of beer advertising next to Catholic school kids -- calls it a "classic symbol of the city."

Yet the other side of the billboard is regularly defaced by illegal artwork, makings the sign's owner wonder how long he will continue paying for it. At least nine times over the past five years, the city has ordered the Daphne R. Eastman Family Trust to remove graffiti from the back of the bottle cap. In three cases, city-paid contractors did the work and sent the bill to trust representative Winthrop Eastman of Houston.

Eastman says he's suffering under the city's policy of forcing property owners to remove graffiti within seven days, even if doing so just creates a blank canvas for the next tagger. "It's meant to do something good," Eastman said about the policy. "It really ends up punishing the people who are the victims of graffiti."

Eastman has been trying to sell the sign to someone who will ensure its survival and restore the famous red and green neon and incandescent lights, which have been dark since the 1990s. Money that could go to restoration is instead repaying the city for graffiti removal, he complains.

The city's anti-graffiti czar sympathizes with Eastman but says property owners need to take responsibility for stopping the epidemic of graffiti. The city already spends $1 million each year getting rid of it. "We can't afford as a city to remove all graffiti at no charge to the property owner," said Susan Young, Minneapolis's solid waste director.

Yet cities across the country are experimenting with ways to ease the pain on property owners, knowing that cracking down on crime victims doesn't build much goodwill, said Robert Hills, executive director of the National Council to Prevent Delinquency, an anti-graffiti group funded by makers of spray paint. Hills said that as graffiti spread, cities are finding ways to exempt repeat victims of graffiti from assessments for its removal.

"If I have a store on the corner, and there's a bus stop and I get hit every day, you really ought to cut me some slack," Hills said.

Graffiti and Grain Belt

The land under the iconic Grain Belt sign represents the last sliver of the Eastman family's legacy on Nicollet Island. Back in the late 1800s, the family owned the entire island. In about 1940, the sky over the Mississippi River first lit up with the diamond, the bottle cap and Grain Belt Beer spelled out one letter at a time.

Over the years, the sign's fortunes have followed the bumpy path of Grain Belt itself, as the beer brand migrated among different breweries. The back of the sign faces DeLaSalle, and in the 1970s seniors climbed onto the catwalk and commemorated their graduating class with a flourish of spray paint.

Young, the city's solid waste chief, still suspects DeLaSalle students of being the main offenders. But Barry Lieske, principal of DeLaSalle, said the school quashed that tradition by the early 1980s.

"There are stiff penalties for students who participate in that kind of behavior," Lieske said.

Eastman also doubts students are to blame. Then again, the city has never tried to catch anyone in the act, he said.

In 1989, Eastman was a special guest when the mayor flipped a switch and 1,100 lamps and 800 feet of neon tubes lit up the sky in a blaze of green and red. Another ceremonial relighting took place in 1992, but a few years later the lights went out and stayed out.

Eastman said the family trust keeps the sign out of nostalgia -- Schell's Brewing Co., the current brewer of Grain Belt, doesn't pay anything for the advertising. The taxes alone on the tiny plot are $3,000 this year.

From asset to nuisance

City records show the sign turned from asset to nuisance in 2006. Three times that year, the city spotted graffiti and issued orders to remove it. Eastman did it twice, but the third time, the unauthorized art hung around for four months before the city cleaned it up. Eastman got the bill for $1,530. The city did it again last June but forgave the $247 charge after Eastman complained to the city.

Eastman has a new bill for $630 after the city painted over graffiti March 18.

The billboard isn't the most popular tagging target in Minneapolis, but it's on the "higher end," Young said. "He doesn't do a lot to restrict access," she said.

Eastman once built a wooden stockade-type fence, but it was quickly torn to pieces. Now he has plans for more robust defenses: possibly a steel grating, fence or an electronic security system.

He applied for a graffiti abatement "microgrant" through a city program to pay for the security measures, which could cost from $2,750 to $10,000. In the past, such micro-grants have funded murals, plantings and rapid-response teams of graffiti scrubbers, Young said.

Eastman could learn as early as next week whether he lands the grant and finds "an effective solution to the problem, once and for all."