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Nature Wears the Stain of Graffiti Artists’ Impulses : Frustrated Guardians of Parks Can Do Little to Halt Eyesores

Times Staff Writer

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

Here are two descriptions of the waterfalls, coming nine years apart and illustrating their metamorphosis:

“The canyon walls become steep and rugged, the stream narrows . . . then around to the right of a turn in the canyon is a beautiful, 12-foot waterfall,” writes Milt McAuley in a 1980 guidebook, “Hiking Trails of the Santa Monica Mountains.”

Today, nature photographer James Kenney says, “You should see the waterfall. It is full of graffiti . . . I have pictures when there was none at all, but I didn’t have the heart to take the ‘after’ pictures today.”

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Graffiti is a common sight on trails from the Santa Susana Mountains in the northwest to Griffith Park in the northeast and all through the Santa Monica Mountains from Universal City to Malibu.

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

It appears in some areas seasonally--such as Malibu Creek State Park, where rangers brace themselves for fresh graffiti every spring. In other parks it appears sporadically all year.

Reminders of City

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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 have escaped. To leave their mark, some graffiti artists apparently are willing to hike more than a mile carrying spray paint.

“Any place people find where it’s easy out, easy in, if there’s something to be graffitied they’ll graffiti it,” Swift said. The graffiti, rather than the beauty of the wilderness, tends to dominate trail 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.”

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

Yet state and city parks officials say little can be done about the back-country graffiti, either before or after it appears.

“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 target sandstone, natural erosion accelerated by acid rain washes away some of the paint after several years.

But beyond that, park officials’ usual clean-up tactics prove unadaptable to the wilderness. Sand-blasting equipment used on urban graffiti is too heavy and cumbersome to cart out on trails. City “Graffiti Doctor” crews paint over graffiti in city parks within 48 hours of a complaint, but parks officials said they rarely hear about the wilderness graffiti and it is impractical to paint large rocks.

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

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Industrial solvents used to scrub the rocks sometimes work, but they may not be ecologically sound, Schmill said.

Tom McKindley, manager of the relatively graffiti-free Presbyterian Conference Center in Temescal Canyon near Pacific Palisades said hikers help his staff identify graffiti hot spots on the center’s trails before they spread and then help remove the paint. The volunteers use solvents, peel bark from graffiti-marred Eucalyptus trees--which naturally shed their bark anyway--and artfully re-paint 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 were worse than ever.

Historical precedent for humans leaving a mark in the wilderness began with the cavemen, who left silhouette handprints on cave walls, and more recently the 19th-Century settlers who carved their names in rocks along the Oregon Trail, said Herman Viola, a Smithsonian Institute historian.

“Don’t you think everyone has an urge to kind of be remembered for posterity?” Viola asked. “Unfortunately spray paint lets you think in grandiose terms. When you had to chip your name into a rock, you thought smaller.”

The tenor of wilderness graffiti varies from rock to rock, tree to tree and park to park. Much of it is 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.”

If graffiti painters 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 been of that nature and none were from the back-country hiking areas, park officials said.

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McAuley said he may have to revise his hiking trails guide to warn outdoorsmen 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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