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Defacing the Wilds : Vanishing Sanctuary

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

“The canyon walls become steep and rugged, the stream narrows, and you feel that the waterfalls are close. Several small falls come first, and you are challenged in climbing up some rock; then around to the right of a turn in the canyon is a beautiful, 12-foot waterfall.’

Milt McAuley, Hiking Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains , 1980

“You should see the waterfall. It is full of graffiti. . . . Even if they found some way to get rid of the graffiti, within six months it would be back up. . . . I have pictures when there was none at all, but I didn’t have the heart to take the after-pictures today.’

James Kenney, naturalist photographer, March, 1989

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The men quoted above were describing the same waterfall in the Santa Monica Mountains.

The Santa Ynez Waterfalls, once a cool reward at the end of a two-mile hike through Santa Ynez Canyon, are a striking example of the way in which rocks, trees and paths in wilderness areas around Los Angeles have increasingly been defaced by graffiti.

Stylized words and symbols are a common sight on trails from the Santa Susana Mountains to Griffith Park and all through the Santa Monica Mountains from Universal City to Malibu.

“Any place people find where it’s easy out, easy in, if there’s something to be graffitied they’ll graffiti it,” said Jill Swift, a Sierra Club hiking leader. “Anything you can’t put graffiti-proof paint on--and who wants to do that to rocks?--will be graffitied.”

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Graffiti appear in some areas seasonally--such as Malibu Creek State Park, where rangers brace themselves for fresh graffiti every spring. In other parks, graffiti appear sporadically year-round.

Urban dwellers who head for the hills on the weekends seeking fresher air, open spaces and serenity are bombarded with constant reminders of the city they are trying to escape.

“The most important reason for natural areas is the inspiration they provide,” Swift said. “When we go out and they’re messed up, it’s like we’ve been raped. It makes us come out filled with anger.”

On the trails, the graffiti, rather than the beauty of the wilderness, tend to dominate conversations. As she hiked through Santa Ynez Canyon one weekend, Jean Dillingham, education director for the Topanga-Las Virgenes Resource Conservation District, said: “We’ve been grumbling about it all the way out. I never want to come back here again.”

Only one hiker interviewed along area trails said he had managed to overlook the graffiti.

Sunny Blueskies, a Hancock Park music producer, speed walks on trails above the Griffith Park Observatory nearly every day with hand weights and his dog, Poodle. He passes graffiti-splattered bridges, boulders, benches and a water tower.

“I’m very nearsighted and I just take my glasses off,” Blueskies said. “I don’t usually notice any of it. Everything just becomes a soft pastel watercolor wash.”

When the wilderness graffiti are allowed to remain, they multiply, or, as Jay Beswick, graffiti consultant for Community Youth Gang Services, explained: “Graffiti breeds graffiti, there’s no question about that,” challenging the next graffiti painter to add to it.

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Graffiti have spread deeper into the parks as rocks and trees closer to parking areas and roads have become covered with paint. Parks officials said anti-gang sweeps by police have also pushed gang hangouts, which are heavily marked by graffiti, farther into the forests.

“It’s really one of the signs of our times--kind of like a challenge to find someplace that’s never been graffitied and put their identity there,” said Jackie Tatum, assistant city parks manager for the San Fernando Valley region.

Yet state and city parks officials say little can be done about the back-country graffiti.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is keep an eye on the place by keeping frequent patrols down there, but it’s hard to catch anyone,” said state park Ranger John Schmill. “We’ve looked at various types of eradication, but that’s not too successful either--paint gets into the pores of the rock.”

When graffiti artists choose sandstone, natural erosion accelerated by acid rain washes away some of the paint after several years, unless the rocks are painted again.

Otherwise, sand-blasting equipment used on urban graffiti is too heavy and cumbersome to cart out on trails. “Graffiti doctor” crews paint over graffiti in city parks within 48 hours of a complaint, but parks officials said that they rarely hear about the wilderness graffiti and that it is impractical to paint large rocks.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy tried a graffiti-resistant coating on rocks at a Mulholland Drive overlook, but “it makes them look like they’re wet all the time,” Chief Ranger Gary Moser said. “It makes them look terrible.”

Solvents sometimes work, but they may not be ecologically sound because they destroy lichens essential to the ecosystem, Schmill said.

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Quick Response

Tom McKindley, manager of the relatively graffiti-free Presbyterian Conference Center in Temescal Canyon in Pacific Palisades, said hikers help his staff identify graffiti hot spots on the center’s trails before they spread and help clean those areas. The volunteers use solvents, peel bark from graffiti-marred eucalyptus trees--which naturally shed bark anyway--and artfully repaint other trees and rocks so they look like trees and rocks again.

McKindley became so upset about the situation in neighboring Santa Ynez Canyon that he persuaded his staff to paint a graffiti-covered culvert and drainage apron with beige paint. Within six months, the culvert and apron graffiti were worse than ever.

Then McKindley tried to talk a muralist into systematically painting over sheer rock faces, caves and the Santa Ynez Waterfalls.

“I asked him to paint that same rock back on that face again,” McKindley said. “But he said, ‘There’s going to be greater joy for the person who graffitis over my work than I would have painting it.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re probably right.’ ”

The tenor of wilderness graffiti varies from rock to rock, tree to tree and park to park. Much are created in the blue and red colors of opposing Los Angeles gangs, but silver and black also are popular hues. Some phrases hint at violence and drugs, others at love.

“I would divide it into thirds,” Beswick said. “A third is the ‘John loves Susan,’ a third of it is getting into the tagging stuff--they look at themselves as artistic and they are not usually gang members--a third would be the cultural writers, the gangs.”

Based on the few graffiti painters caught in the act, modern wilderness defacers range from inner-city youths on a back-country excursion to the children of the wealthy homeowners who live nearby. Len Milner, who lives on Palisades Drive, said many of the Santa Ynez perpetrators are neighborhood youngsters playing hooky.

If they are actually caught with paint in hand, they face fines of up to $500 and 200 hours of community work. But only a handful of the arrests have reached that stage, and none was from the back-country areas, parks officials said.

Evidence of partying usually accompanies a heavily painted spot. Above Chatsworth Park South, on the edge of the Santa Susana Mountains, bottles littered at the base of sandstone outcroppings hint at the young ages of those responsible for the fresh graffiti: Boone’s Strawberry Hill wine and Mickey’s malt liquor.

Ignoring Consequences

“Our assumption is these kids who are doing this know they’re being destructive,” Kenney said. “But I think they just don’t take this pristine environment as seriously as we do. I don’t think they get together and say, ‘Let’s go up and ruin the wilderness.’ ”

Hikers and parks authorities say graffiti were the latest in a series of urban ills to seep into the wilderness. First came trash, then fires, then graffiti, they say.

Some remember seeing occasional painted words up to a decade ago, but said they proliferated dramatically during the past four or five years. Graffiti artists provide evidence by dating much of their work. A date before 1980 is unusual. Many graffiti are so fresh the paint still shines.

For hikers, there are early signs that a trail will be graffiti-plagued, such as paint-caked trail signs or giant letters spray-painted on asphalt parking lots.

On the Betty B. Deering Trail connecting Mulholland Drive with the ocean, the first sign of something amiss comes at the initial mileage marker, which is obliterated by three layers of graffiti.

Remoteness a Factor

As is the case with most trails, the farther out, the less frequent the paint. But every time civilization dips close to the trail, it reappears.

Why some areas get hit and others don’t remains a mystery.

Newer trails remain clean. La Tuna Canyon trail near Sunland-Tujunga opened two months ago but won’t be officially dedicated until July. There, a wide band of graffiti on a drainage culvert at the trail entrance appears to predict future problems, but to date even the wooden trail barriers are graffiti-free.

Trails that lead out of guarded parking areas, such as the Presbyterian Conference Center and O’Melveny Park in Granada Hills, also tend to fare better.

But even the city parks manager in charge of the Valley cannot guess why the flat rocks of the Santa Susanas are heavily painted above Chatsworth Park South yet are virtually untouched at nearby Chatsworth Oaks Park.

“I don’t know,” Tatum said. “Maybe it’s because south Chatsworth is very secluded.”

McAuley said he may have to revise his book’s descriptions to warn hikers about the graffiti.

“Unfortunately, the people that need to read that--the people doing the graffiti--won’t be reading my books,” he said.


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