The Marengo Wall stretches for a hundred yards or so next to the I-10 Freeway in East Los Angeles. It stands roughly 20 feet high, is composed of smooth concrete, and serves as a barrier between the freeway and the ramshackle neighborhood behind it. In fact, if you stand on the neighborhood side of the Marengo Wall you would never know why this place, in some circles, has become famous.
But walk around to the freeway side, and you will see. A vast tapestry of graffiti covers the entire surface in a wild, frenzied jungle of Chucko's, Two Rocks and Wiz Codes. It turns out that the Marengo Wall is a sort of motherland of graffiti, the place where young writers come to train and perfect their style before they branch out across the city. Think of the Marengo Wall as the Beaux-Arts School of graffiti, and you will understand its place in history.
All illegal, of course. Jay Beswick, who bills himself as the "1 Graffiti Buster," came here the other day on his lunch break to gaze at the wall and talk about the war against the Chucko's and Wiz Codes. Things are not going well, said Beswick. We are losing.
Beswick is 34 and currently serves as the graffiti consultant to Community Youth Gang Services. He is thin, intense, and carries with him a thick notebook documenting graffiti carnage from the mountains to the sea.
"When I started out in '76, mainly we were fighting gang stuff. It's what we now call 'cultural graffiti,' " he said. "But after 1984, when the Olympics came, the whole scene changed. We got the taggers, people who want to get personal fame through graffiti. The taggers roughly doubled the size of the problem in L.A."
Beswick believes the two events--the L.A. Olympics and the arrival of the taggers--are connected. The Olympic organizers sponsored the painting of murals on many freeway walls, thereby demonstrating the potential of the walls as sites for personal statements. The tagging culture soon followed.
At its simplest level, tagging is the process of leaving an emblematic mark on as many surfaces as possible. These marks serve as a personal signature of sorts. "Ozone," the famous tagger of the San Fernando Valley, was credited with hitting 5,000 spots before he was caught. Some taggers number each of their marks, like Picasso numbered his prints, to establish credentials. Anything over 1,000 gets you noticed.
But an ambitious tagger will often move up to more elaborate designs. This is called "piecing" or "bombing." Bombers are the go-for-broke boys who will spend eight hours or more spraying huge designs on the side of your local post office.
"It's my guess that about 1,000 tags and pieces go up every night in Los Angeles," said Beswick glumly. "These guys carry around portfolios with 8-by-10 glossies of their work. They have newsletters that give advice on how to avoid capture."
He pulled out a copy of Ghetto Art, a newsletter published in North Hollywood. It featured a first-person account by Dream of his recent bombing in San Francisco ("really strong right now . . . I did some of my throw-ups in crowded areas of the city") and a gossipy update on local events ("L.A. is being bombed by New York's very own J.A. . . . who is out every day and night").
Against this onslaught, the sandblasters and special coatings available to the graffiti busters have proven as useful as cap pistols in a gang war. Beswick remembers spending most of the day once painting over the Marengo Wall. When his crew finished, Beswick looked up to see four or five boys waiting patiently in the background, each holding a small briefcase filled with spray cans.
"What we had done by working all day was provide them with a blank canvas," said Beswick. He bowed to the boys, and they went to work on the wall, learning their craft.
No one knows the real figure, but all the futile sandblasting and painting cost Los Angeles City and County something like $50 million last year.
Beswick thinks the only real answer lies in a get-tough policy. He recalls the case of one Miguel Angel Gonzalez who was sentenced to 130 days this year for tagging "Dopey" in the Harbor area. As he was hauled off to the slammer, an amazed Gonzalez was heard to ask, "Who did I kill?"
Beswick likes that story. He is also a realistic man and knows that virtually none of the big-leaguers have ever been caught, much less sentenced. He recalls the time he drove home in his station wagon, which displays his trade-mark slogan "1 Graffiti Buster." The next morning he got up to find that the wagon had been tagged in the night.
It was like stealing a policeman's car, Beswick thought, smiling. But unlike the policeman, he never believed he would catch the tagger, and he never did.