Graffiti, Cleanup Cost on the Rise : Vandalism: Caltrans will spend $28,000 this year for a clean sweep of San Diego.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The California Department of Transportation expects to spend about $28,000 this year to erase graffiti from signs, walls and art projects along San Diego freeways.

Steve Saville, Caltrans spokesman for District 11, which includes Imperial, Riverside and San Diego counties, said Caltrans used to spend $3,000 to $5,000 a year to clean up graffiti in all three counties.

Graffiti have gradually increased in the last couple of years, Saville said. "But there has been a dramatic increase in the last six months to a year."

Saville attributed the increase to San Diego's growth. Many of San Diego's problems, such as gang activity and graffiti, are things Los Angeles began to go through 10 years ago.

A great deal of freeway graffiti in San Diego are gang oriented, Saville said. He added that other graffiti are so elaborate that they almost constitute an art form.

The most affected area is Interstate 5, from the border to downtown San Diego, and some sections of Interstate 805 and California 94, Saville said.

The graffiti run the gamut from initials to more serious items such as the anti-Semitic slogans discovered earlier this week on a retaining wall mural overlooking the interchange of I-8 and I-805.

Saville said Caltrans doesn't know who defaced the mural. He added that by the time Caltrans or police get calls from motorists reporting people painting graffiti, the painters are usually gone.

The mural, depicting a sunrise over the high desert mountains and some vicuna, was created "10 years and one month" ago, said the mural's creator, Art Cole.

"It lived longer than many children without abuse do," Cole said. He described his mural as a visual prayer for peace and calls it "Big Sky Church."

The mural, 275 feet wide and 22 feet tall, was first done in black and white in one night, Cole said. It was painted without the approval of Caltrans, but once officials saw it, they asked Cole to add color.

Back in 1981, the materials to complete the mural cost $600. The work took three weeks and four artists, Cole said.

Cole has been asked to repair the damage--but at his own expense.

Seville said Caltrans used to help artists by providing materials, but that the agency can no longer afford to do so. Cole says he will need to raise $2,500 to $5,000.

Usually, graffiti painters go after more mundane things, such as overhead signs and road signs, Saville said.

Sometimes the graffiti can be dangerous. For example, signs warning people they are going the wrong way on an on-ramp or off-ramp have been obscured, as have others warning motorists of an oncoming curve. This is especially dangerous to drivers traveling in strange territory.

Caltrans cleans the vandalized signs using a paint-removing solvent, but after three or four cleanings, the solvent takes the reflective finish off. Once that happens the sign must be replaced.

"For the smaller (signs) it can cost anywhere from $25 to $50 to replace them," he said. "But for the larger ones, it can get pretty costly depending on the size.

"Nothing about this situation is cheap," Saville said.

Caltrans is looking for ways to reduce the graffiti, among them the installation of security systems and fences around the base of the signs to keep people from climbing them.

"Initially it would be a big expense, but in the long run it would help by reducing the cost of cleanup," he said.

Another option is to apply silicate-based materials to sign surfaces, Saville said. By doing this, graffiti could be removed with a spray of high-pressure water.

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