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Handwriting on the Wall : L.A. Pilot Program Tests Whether Concerted Effort Can Make Meaningful Dent in Graffiti

Times Staff Writer

Oscar Martinez can take pride in his work, but he’d better do it quickly.

Youths sometimes interrupt Martinez in mid-stroke as he sprays gray paint over city-owned, graffiti-daubed walls, bridges, underpasses and pedestrian tunnels.

Eyeing the smooth, freshly covered walls, they tell him, “ ‘I’ll be here tonight to paint it again,’ ” Martinez said.

He is head of a three-man crew working to paint over graffiti across the San Fernando Valley and throughout Los Angeles. But, Martinez said, “It doesn’t seem like it’s working. Most of the ones we’ve done, they already have graffiti again. As soon as I leave, they come right back and paint it.

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“The next morning, I go back and look at it, and already it’s covered with graffiti,” he said, as his crews prepared to spray gray opaque paint on a North Hollywood underpass painted with the words Lolly Pop, Noty Boy, Weasel, and I love You Jeovanna.

About 409 municipally owned locations throughout the city are sporting fresh coats of paint these days, courtesy of a $150,000 pilot program that city officials hope will help get rid of some of the graffiti that seem to spring up on nearly every empty wall.

Share of Skeptics

In some locations, as fast as the work crews can paint it out, the writing is on the wall again. And some Los Angeles police officers and gang experts are skeptical about the program.

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About 120 Valley locations--including 33 in the West Valley and 87 in the East Valley--are targeted for cleanup in the citywide campaign, said Greg Scott, chief coordinator of the Bureau of Street Maintenance, which is overseeing the cleanup.

Approved last summer by the Los Angeles City Council, the anti-graffiti effort is an experiment to determine whether a concerted campaign to paint out graffiti will do any good, or whether the struggle against graffiti is an unwinnable battle.

David A. Reed, the bureau’s assistant director, said, “What we want to do is get an idea how fast is the stuff going to come back.

“If, three months from now, everything we’ve painted is graffitied up again, I don’t think we’d want to go to City Council and ask for money,” he said. “We want a cost-effective program.”

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But, if only half the graffiti returns within six months, the bureau might recommend that the City Council approve a smaller allocation for a continuing program, Reed said.

Scott said officials will be surveying the freshly painted sites every month to determine whether the project has amounted to more than a fresh canvas for new graffiti scribblings.

“We’re not going to paint a rosy picture. We’re not going to paint a pessimistic picture. We’re going to actually look at what happens,” he added.

The City Council voted last August to finance the pilot program on a motion by Councilman John Ferraro, whose district includes parts of the East San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles’ Westside.

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Other Priorities

Past projects have been hit-or-miss. In the ‘70s, city workers cleaned graffiti from public areas with help from federally funded programs such as the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which allowed the department to hire hundreds of workers with federal tax dollars. But, in the post-Proposition-13 era of budget tightening, the task has been neglected as the bureau’s labor force has shrunk from 2,200 people in 1974 to 1,427 today, Reed said. Now, the bureau simply has other priorities, he said.

“Graffiti may be unsightly and aesthetically offensive, but it’s not a public-safety concern,” Reed said. “We’ve got to fill potholes, sweep the streets and trim trees.”

The city paints its pedestrian tunnels once each 18 months as part of regular maintenance.

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Biggest Effort

The pilot program is the city’s most intensive anti-graffiti effort right now, Reed said. There are other city programs to combat graffiti in parks, libraries, and similar facilities.

Occasionally, the city provides supplies to citizens groups and nonprofit organizations that want to clean up graffiti. A committee appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley is working to find solutions for businesses and industries.

But no regular removal of graffiti is budgeted for public streets, Reed said, adding that some never get painted.

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When a citizen complains of graffiti that are profane or make racial or ethnic slurs, the city sends crews quickly, Reed said. But, even then, the crew usually paints out merely the offending words, leaving a blotched wall.

For the pilot program, a private contractor was hired because the city administrative office calculated that it would be cheaper than buying the truck, paint, paint compressors and other equipment required, Reed said.

Homer L. Dunn Decorating Inc., of Los Angeles, the lowest of three bidders for the job, is being paid 21 cents per square foot for painting about 500,000 square feet, Reed said. Painting is the chosen method because scrubbing takes much longer, he said.

The program affects city-owned property in selected locations over 90% of the city, Scott said. Working from observation and public complaints, superintendents in each of the bureau’s 24 maintenance districts submitted a list of graffiti-covered overpasses, underpasses, pedestrian tunnels, retaining walls and the like in their areas.

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In March, a three-man crew set out to begin work on 69 city-owned sites in the harbor area, which includes South-Central Los Angeles, San Pedro, Watts and Wilmington. The crew then began tackling 220 sites in the central area, which includes Hollywood, Highland Park, East Los Angeles, and the downtown area. Now, they are working in the Valley and the Westside, and expect to complete the job in mid-June, Reed said.

Preliminary Findings

Preliminary results are not encouraging, officials said.

In the Harbor area, for instance, graffiti reappeared within two weeks in 15% of the locations painted, Reed said. There are no survey results yet for the rest of the city.

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Los Angeles Police Sgt. Joe Suarez, a member of the city’s Gang Activities Section, said the painting may be good for community morale.

But, he said: “For the most part, all these areas where they try to clean up the graffiti, it lasts a week, maybe a day, and it’s painted all over again.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, the graffiti returns because the gangsters, they have to write on the wall. You can’t get away from it. It’s a form of advertising for them like Chrysler or Ford.”

Under city law, defacing public property is a misdemeanor. It must be witnessed by a police officer or public officer or a citizen willing to take the risk of making a citizen’s arrest, police said. Many youths work undetected on deserted streets early in the morning, he said.

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Jay Beswick, assistant program director for the Community Youth Gang Services Graffiti Abatement Unit, a 3-year-old, nonprofit program financed by the city and the county, which cleans graffiti under contract for Caltrans, the state Parks and Recreation Department and other agencies, said: “It almost seems like the graffiti comes up as fast as we take it off. It’s a big battle.” The Youth Gang Services unit has tried using anti-graffiti coatings, which make it easier to remove fresh graffiti without removing the paint underneath, but “kids write on it before the paint even has a chance to cure,” Beswick said.

“There are areas that we can claim we’ve cleaned up a great deal of graffiti and it’s remained off,” said Gilbert Bautista of Pacoima, a supervisor with the anti-graffiti program of Project Heavy, a youth service organization financed with federal, state and local money. The program uses volunteers and juveniles sentenced by the court to paint over graffiti.

“In certain areas, we’ve been able to control it because there is not an active gang in that area,” Bautista said.

Reed said he doesn’t believe painting alone will solve the graffiti problem.

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“We have to treat the disease and not just the symptoms. I honestly believe it has to be attacked at the school level and by others that deal with the social aspects of the causes of the graffiti phenomenon,” he said.


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