Painted in neutral colors

Painted in neutral colors
Director Mortimer Jones, right, asked artist Eduardo "Lalo" Marquez, left, to paint a mural showing the services offered by the Salvation Army Siemon Youth & Community Center. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)
It's hard to find a storefront around the Salvation Army center in South Los Angeles that's not been scrawled on by local taggers. Even the Virgin of Guadalupe painted on the mini-market across the street hasn't escaped the vandals.

But a sprawling mural, a story high and almost a block wide on the face of the community center, remains remarkably untouched. More than two years have passed since the center's director gave approval for the mural, ignoring warnings from neighbors that the art would be vandalized almost immediately.

Yet the reds, yellows and oranges of the mural look as bright and unblemished as ever.

Police say it's the result of an informal truce among area gangs to spare the center, which provides social services to hundreds of needy local families.

"The guys who do the tagging are the same guys we're taking care of inside," Director Mortimer Jones said.

The center offers a day-care center, a food pantry, assistance with utility bills, tutoring, even motel vouchers for temporarily displaced families.

Jones, a native of Jamaica who came to Los Angeles to head the center in 2003, shows a printout map of the area.

"This is us," he says, pointing to a red dot.

One side of South Central Avenue -- where the center is located -- is Crips turf. On the other are various Bloods sets. Florencia, a Latino street gang, is encroaching from another side.

The center is in the cross-hairs of some of the city's most violent gangs, an area ripe for graffiti.

"Tagging is a way of life in South-Central," Jones said.

Police are surprised by what seems to be a concerted effort by local gangs to keep the center from harm. They attribute the phenomenon to a sense of ownership the community has taken for the facilities.

Senior Lead Officer Martin Martinez of the 77th Street Division in which the center is located said there's no doubt word has been put out by area gang leaders to not touch the center or its mural.

"Any wall poses a temptation for graffiti vandalism. Am I surprised? Yes, of course," he said. "But this is a place the community takes pride in."

The idea for the mural occurred as Jones grew increasingly frustrated with how little many neighbors knew about the services offered inside the boxy warehouse-like structure. He decided to commission an artist to paint a mural showing what went on inside the center.

With the help of a corporate sponsor and volunteers, a local artist painted the mural in October 2007. Along a series of pillowy blue clouds, two boys in old-school Converse shoes play basketball, an adult reads to a child and a graduate proudly holds a diploma.

Eduardo "Lalo" Marquez, the Los Angeles-based artist who painted the mural, says he was worried throughout the process that his work would be ruined by vandals.

"Honestly I did think it was going to get tagged up just because of the location," he said.

He even offered to coat the mural in a finish that would make it easier to wash off the graffiti he thought was inevitable.

His offer was rejected, due to cost, but it turns out no protective coat was needed.

Jones says the mural has improved awareness of the social services the center provides, welcoming members of the community.

Youths from competing gangs play basketball in the center's gym and work out together in its weight room.

"They walk in the building, they go neutral," Jones said. "And they're playing on the same team. These are the guys who are supposed to be fighting in the streets."