Off-the-Wall Crusade : Man Tries New Defense in War Against Graffiti

Times Staff Writer

For two years, Tom Dawson has been waging a one-man war on one wall's worth of graffiti. But last week, he implemented a strategy that he hopes will discourage the exterior decorators for good.

He hired a graffiti-prevention company to cover his wall with a weather-resistant, low-sheen coating of silicone and wax. If graffiti-makers strike again, the company will come back and spray 190-degree steam on the wall, melting off the wax and any graffiti on top of it.

What is unusual about Dawson's insistence on a clean wall is that it surrounds a vacant lot--the very reason it is such a choice target for graffiti-makers. It is rare for someone to go to such extremes to keep graffiti away from a vacant lot, according to Ernest Garrett, president of the California division of Graffiti Prevention Systems, the firm Dawson hired.

"One of the reasons we don't have more vacant lots is because these are areas the vandals will hit quite often," Garrett said.

'Sick to Death'

Dawson, a 65-year-old architect, said he was "sick to death" of picking up trash left by the vandals, and he didn't want his neighbors to have to look at the graffiti anymore. He plans to build elegant Florentine condominiums on the lot, which is located on Fairfax Avenue just north of Sunset Boulevard.

Two years ago, elaborate works of unwanted art started appearing on the wall, and he found so many spray cans littering the lot that he couldn't pick them all up. He tried painting over the wall, but the artwork reappeared overnight. On at least three occasions, he confronted graffiti artists in the act. Once, with police present, he agreed not to press charges if the perpetrators would paint the wall clean.

An hour after finishing, he said, they returned to strike again, leaving the message, "Don't paint on these walls because you will get stamped."

Favor to Neighbors

"The confrontations I've had with the artists revealed, first of all, that they think of this as art," Dawson said. "And because there's nobody living here, they feel it belongs to them as much as me."

One reason Dawson wanted to remove the graffiti was to preserve the good will of his neighbors. "I'm mortified to have such an ugly eyesore as this for my neighbors to have to look at for so long," he said.

But some of his neighbors had no complaints. Danielle Lefemine, 35, whose house adjoins Dawson's lot, thought of the graffiti as a form of artistic expression, a non-destructive outlet for youthful energies.

"They never caused a problem here," she said. "They came and did their artwork, and they left. We felt this was something we shouldn't stifle."

Lefemine said her roommate, Linda Gleis, was so impressed with one man's graffiti that she commissioned him to paint the same designs on canvas. Then she put an expensive frame around the painting and made a gift of it. A friend of Gleis' boyfriend hired the man to paint designs on his car cover, Lefemine said, and somebody must have liked the work because the cover was later stolen.

Graffiti as Art

"Aren't some of these great?" said Gary Maahs, 30, a painter hired by Dawson to paint the wall before the graffiti-prevention workers arrived. "Not that I'm into this stuff, but whoever the artist was was good."

First Maahs painted over a huge, green face with a gleaming eye, a cartoon painted "4 Kelly" by W.C.A., whose initials appeared in several places on the wall.

Another notable graffito was a likeness of Ronald Reagan, with his hair tuft characteristically combed to the side, but with a pug nose and thick lips.

There was also a skull with sparkling teeth and a bony hand to its side making a peace sign.

But all disappeared beneath a coat of oil-based primer and another of exterior latex, and workers from Graffiti Prevention Systems sprayed the wall with the special coating.

"The most effective way to discourage graffiti is to get it off immediately, because all these people, in one way or another, are exhibitionists and they want it to be seen," Garrett said. "We don't profess to eliminate it, but we do claim to discourage it."

The Sepulveda-based company has about 150 clients in Los Angeles and San Diego, Garrett said, including apartment complexes, banks, hospitals, fast-food restaurants and a handful of homeowners.

The company charges an initial fee to apply the seal, then a monthly maintenance charge--call it a graffiti insurance premium--ranging from $10 to $500 a month, said Robert L. Schwartz, company president.

A bank several blocks south of Dawson's lot, First Federal Savings Bank of California at 464 N. Fairfax Ave., contracted with Graffiti Prevention four months ago. Mitch Uberstine, vice president of the bank, said he saw a rapid decline in the problem afterward.

"We had a real bad time of it during the summer, and just this past Monday we had six different areas of the building they had spray-painted," Uberstine said. "The following day, it was all gone.

"The bottom line to the whole thing is, now that they know we can take it off as quick as they can put it up, it's more of a deterrent to them. We have eliminated their canvas to paint on."

Four Categories

"Graffiti attracts graffiti," said Schwartz, listing four categories of graffiti-makers: artists, vandals, sex perverts and message writers.

Vandals, he said, use graffiti to express anger. He cited as an example a fired employee's defacing the building of the company that fired him.

Message writers include gang members who use graffiti to mark their turf and to advertise availability and prices of drugs, he said.

There is also a technique called "tagging," in which somebody sprays his name, initials or some other message on successive store windows and walls as he walks down a street.

But Dawson's confrontations have been with artists, who have accused him of being "anti-art" and envious of their talent--charges he found amusing.

"I'm an artist," said Dawson, who is a graduate of Yale University and a winner of the American Academy of Arts and Letter's Prix de Rome award for architecture. "I have the greatest respect for art, but I also have a considerable respect for private property."

He agreed that some of the artists are talented but said, "Be that as it may, I don't want it on my wall, I don't want the trespassers, and I don't want the filth that I have to pick up after them."

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