Fighting Fire With Fire : Highland Park: A youth counselor paints murals with the community's help, using a visual style derived from graffiti of the gangs he is trying to combat.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's been three years since the face of Jesus appeared on the side of the Highland Park movie theater.

It is in no way a remarkable work, artistically speaking. Even its painter, Peter Quezada, today winces when he thinks of its primitive technique.

But Quezada's first mural, like almost all of his that have followed, has one greatly redeeming quality. It has never been defaced by graffiti. The face of Jesus has become the permanent replacement for the gang writings and "tags," or stylized signatures, that for years kept appearing on the inviting beige wall on Avenue 56.

Quezada does not fancy himself a muralist. He calls himself "Painter Pete" or "Pied Piper." He uses murals to keep street kids involved in activities that are acceptable to adults. A few years ago, a graffiti artist put a spray can in Quezada's hand and taught him to use it. He started painting with the kids and putting ideas into their heads about respecting property and staying away from gangs and drugs.

The murals they paint don't look that much different from the ones painted by outlaw graffiti artists in the middle of the night. They include gang totems, gang lettering and such popular images as Betty Boop, the Lakers and the Zig Zag man. In place of the usual graffiti writers' signatures, each bears a symbolic scroll of the names of the youngsters Quezada recruited to work on it. But each also has enough Madison Avenue to make it work for the business community.

"Mike's Transmission," says one in Old English script. "Let's Just Get High on Life," says another.

The murals are "corny but effective," said Quezada, 35, who in 1986 quit his job as an assistant bank manager to become a street counselor.

Today, Quezada is struggling as the president and entire staff of Neighborhoods For Peace, a nonprofit corporation whose purpose is to put Quezada on the streets with kids. He works out of a Highland Park law office, which allows him to use a desk and office equipment.

He has gotten by on small donations and a couple of formal grants. His goal is to open a youth center in northeast Los Angeles where he can work full time talking to kids, steering them out of trouble, lining them up for work and leading them out on the streets to paint out graffiti in the only way he believes will work.

"I try to educate the city," he said. "They have a program called Operation Clean Sweep. Paint is available to any community group that wants to paint out graffiti, paint in quantities you can only dream of. But after you do your graffiti wipeout, it comes gradually back. And so I try to tell the people what is successful are murals. Youth counseling is also very successful.

"You have to spend a lot of hours in the street with the kids. You have to find a lot of alternatives to their energies when they get out of school at 3 o'clock," he said.

It's impossible to measure the effectiveness of Quezada's unusual approach to gang counseling. But because of the demands of finding funding for the organization, he has never been able to apply himself consistently to working directly with kids. And this summer saw the most violent eruption of gang violence in Highland Park's history.

But the effect of his painting is well established. Quezada has painted about a dozen murals in the past two years, all on walls where previous efforts to control graffiti had failed. Not one has been seriously defaced.

Quezada has never had trouble attracting believers. On his board of directors are members of Highland Park's Kiwanis Club, Optimist Club and Chamber of Commerce.

Most of the members of the board have a strong personal commitment to Quezada that goes back to the years when he worked as a teller in the Security Pacific Bank on Figueroa Street. After work, he would go out on the streets to paint out graffiti and talk common sense to teen-agers who were heading toward gang membership but were still too young to join. He called them puppies.

"They're no longer puppies," he said. "They're fully grown adult dogs now. They're 18, 19 and 20, and they kill people. When I first got them at 15 and 16, and even 14, they could have been worked with."

After two job transfers, Quezada ended up downtown, at 6th and Flower streets. One of his duties was to wait on Robert Hastings, the 80-year-old philanthropic partner of the law firm of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker.

When Quezada quit in 1986 to begin full-time street counseling, Hastings looked him up.

"I had enormous respect for him for quitting a job and taking on this work," Hastings said. "I went out with him and cased some of the walls before and after and got very much interested in the darn stuff."

Quezada worked three years with the Los Angeles Community Youth Gang Services under a grant called the Northeast Los Angeles Graffiti Abatement Contract.

He is critical of the effectiveness of the city's anti-graffiti program. "They have what they call making contacts," Quezada said. " 'What'd you do today?' 'Oh, we made contact. We found out, like what's happening.' I go, 'Is that it? That's ridiculous.'

"I'm not bitter," he said. But "it's hard to get your desire across in words. It's best done in the streets."

When the grant ran out last year, Quezada decided to go independent. Hastings backed him with a seed donation of $10,000 and had his law firm prepare articles of incorporation for Neighborhoods For Peace. Quezada went into the northeast communities to recruit board members and dig up donations.

It hasn't been easy. "You can go to a merchant whose wall is covered with graffiti and say, 'I'll take it off and put the name of your liquor store there. I'll throw it up on the wall for you. Anything you want, a car, a girl, a nature setting. And they won't pay for it.' "

Donations have come in, most of them small. The largest was $2,500.

The money, which went primarily to pay Quezada's $1,300-a-month salary, ran out in October. A $5,000 grant from the Lluella Morey Murphey Foundation has given Neighborhoods For Peace a few more months to operate.

Meanwhile, Quezada is applying for four more grants, work he does not find rewarding.

"Right now, I don't really like my job because I'm working on grant proposals. For the last month and a half now, I've been indoors. The kids I was working with, they're still out there."

These days, Quezada is thinking of going back to work in banking. "I can't be looking over my shoulder the way I have all this time," he said. "I'm tired of the uncertainty" of always making do and struggling to locate funds.

Hastings isn't giving up yet. Corporate money is available, he said, if Quezada can build a stronger base in his community.

"By God, we need more financial support, even if it isn't in large amounts," Hastings said, challenging Quezada to redouble his effort with local businesses.

"We're going to get this damn thing off the ground only because of Peter," he said. "Anything I say about Peter you can double in spades because he's a hell of a guy."

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