'Ozone Is Gone' : A spray-can artist has gone beyond graffiti, but his trademark lingers on.

Times Staff Writer

Like aerosol from a spray can, Ozone has vaporized and disappeared.

But the "ozone" that emerged from the can won't go away.

Ozone is the identity that 17-year-old Christopher Coggan, of Woodland Hills, took on as a graffiti painter. The other "ozone" is the blue stylized word that he painted on hundreds of San Fernando Valley walls, bus benches and other public places before he put away his spray can.

"It was an obsession," says Coggan of his three-month frenzy of scrawling "ozone" nearly every place he could reach. "I covered the whole West Valley, Hollywood and parts of L.A. I really became addicted."

Coggan said he quit his one-man graffiti rampage three months ago when it suddenly dawned on him that he was creating vandalism instead of art.

These days, he is painting complicated murals on walls. With permission.

"Ozone is gone," said Coggan, a senior at Taft High School.

Unfortunately, however, "ozone" remains visible in bright blue paint on nearly every street on which Coggan travels these days.

"Now I see that it's ugly," he said. "When I see it, it bugs me. I'd like to get rid of it. I'd go back myself and paint over it if I wasn't afraid I'd get arrested for vandalism for spraying over it."

Surprisingly, Coggan was never caught during his graffiti outings--some of which lasted 12 hours at a stretch.

"I was doing it down Ventura Boulevard in the middle of the day," he said. "I was never chased. People would just look the other way. Only one person ever stopped. He was an RTD bus driver and he said I was crazy and then he went on."

Since he was never caught in the act of vandalizing property, Coggan now runs no risk of prosecution, according to Los Angeles city officials.

"A successful prosecution would have to have the element of an eyewitness or the tangible evidence on the person at the time of apprehension," city attorney's spokesman Ted Goldstein said Friday. "We don't like to file frivolous cases or cases we know we can't win."

Coggan said he became Ozone when he noticed other scrawled nicknames on walls and bus benches in the West Valley left by "taggers," as graffiti artists refer to themselves.

"I wanted to be famous," Coggan said. "Nobody else knew who you were. But you did. And your friends knew."

He picked the tag "ozone" because it symbolizes destruction. Ingredients in some spray paints have been blamed with depleting the Earth's ozone layer.

"I figured every time I tagged I took a risk. It could destroy me, just like spray paint was destroying the atmosphere," he said.

It never occurred to Coggan that he was destroying the ambiance of his own neighborhood until he drove by a Woodland Hills ski shop and saw an old man struggling to paint over one of his blue "ozone" tags, he said.

"I wanted to repaint the whole building for him," Coggan said. "After that, I never painted 'ozone' again."

An increase in graffiti in the West Valley has angered homeowners. On Friday, leaders of the Woodland Hills Homeowners Organization announced that they will stage a communitywide graffiti paint-out day May 14.

"I've seen it on my house and that ticked me off," said cleanup planner Jim Campbell. "A lot of people are riled up about graffiti."

Coggan's mother, Jean, said she was infuriated when she learned that her son was responsible for the "ozone" graffiti around town. "To me, it was destruction of property. It scared me," she said.

In hopes of guiding her son into a safer pastime, Jean Coggan allowed him to spray paint a wall-sized mural on his bedroom wall. After that, Coggan's girlfriend also commissioned a mural, as did another friend.

Later, Coggan and several friends painted a mural over graffiti on a storm channel wall near Fallbrook Avenue in Woodland Hills. Their work won the backing of nearby residents and police.

"I prefer murals to graffiti," said one homeowner, whose house overlooks the channel, but who declined to give her name. "They're good, nice kids. The police talked to them and there was no problem."

Next, Coggan said he wants to paint a mural over graffiti on a highly visible retaining wall next to Collier Street in Woodland Hills. He said he has sought permission from Los Angeles City Councilman Marvin Braude's office for the project.

"We told him to give us a sketch of what he wants to do and we'll look at it very carefully," said Brad Rosenheim, a field deputy to Braude. "We'd try to work with him in a positive manner. We'd talk to adjacent property owners."

'Neutral' Mural

If neighbors do not object, Coggan probably will get the go-ahead for a "neutral" mural on a non-controversial subject that would not prompt more graffiti, Rosenheim said Friday.

Positive outlets, such as murals, are helpful for teen-agers needing to build their self-esteem, said Dr. Richard H. Baker, a child psychiatrist who practices in Encino.

"That's a rather creative response on the part of the city," Baker said Friday. "It allows a teen-ager to boost his ego and see his mark on the territory . . . but in a constructive way for the community."

Baker said teen-agers often struggle with their self-esteem as they grow from childhood to adulthood.

'Taggers' Reform

Coggan agrees. He said his sudden conversion from graffiti painter to mural painter "was like graduating from kindergarten to college all in one night." Some of his tagger friends, who decorated walls with names like "Serf," "Wiser" and "Ink8" have likewise reformed, he said.

"I made myself blind to the cost of what I was doing at first. I would have tagged everything except Alaska and not been satisfied. Now I can see it wasn't art. It was just crime."

This summer, he plans to sign up for a professional sign-painter course, Coggan said. After that, he wants to enroll in an art school.

"I'm on way to being an artist. A real one," he said.

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