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The Murals Are Gone, but Owner Faces Trouble--and Graffiti

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For the six weeks that the brightly colored, ground-to-roof murals adorned Fine Car Exteriors in Lawndale, not a single graffiti “tagger” had defaced its walls.

But just a few days after city officials forced owner Carlos Marin to remove the eye-popping paintings, fluorescent green graffiti appeared on the side of his building.

“It’s just like a blank piece of paper for them now,” sighed Roy Marin, the owner’s brother and shop foreman. “I know they’re going to hit us again.”

The Marin brothers believed the murals would beautify their building as well as discourage graffiti. But the controversial paintings caused such a community uproar that, by the time they painted over them Friday, graffiti was the least of their concerns.

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Carlos Marin, who has operated his auto repair shop for 14 years, has been charged with violating a city ordinance that limits the size of business signs to 20% of the portion of the building that faces the street. He was also cited for refusing to comply with a community safety officer who tried to talk to him about the murals.

For the sign ordinance violation, which is an infraction, Marin could be fined $25. But for failing to cooperate with the officer, a misdemeanor, Marin could face up to $1,000 in fines and six months in jail, said community safety supervisor Bart Swanson. Marin is scheduled to appear in South Bay Municipal Court on Aug. 22.

Marin declined to comment on the criminal charges or the controversy that sparked the problem.

But Roy Marin said Tuesday that the city’s reaction to the murals reflects a prejudice against Latino culture. He accused the city of coming down harder on his brother than other business owners because he is Latino. He also noted that the neat, block letters that make up the sign for a neighboring business, whose owner is Anglo, has not come under the same kind of scrutiny.

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“The ones getting harassed are us,” he said. “I think it had a lot to do with the racism issue.”

Gary Chicots, the city’s director of community development, said the style of the murals played no part in his decision to enforce the Municipal Code against Marin. He said the sign of the neighboring business appears to be within city guidelines and he denied Marin has been treated differently because of his ethnicity.

“It has nothing to do with who he his, his racial background, or whether he repairs cars or shoes or anything else,” Chicots said. “Our only goal was to gain compliance on the sign code. Our intention was not to arrest somebody or give somebody a bad time. . . . What we needed was cooperation and communication.

In mid-June, Carlos Marin paid former graffiti “taggers” Eddy Millan and Alberto Polanco $600 to spray-paint murals on his building. The multicolored murals portrayed scenes from an auto repair shop, including a picture of a rainbow tunnel that transforms an auto wreck into a car glittering like new.

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Two other business owners on the block--Super Auto Repair and Tatco Inc.--liked the work so much that they also hired the youths to paint their walls.

But the paintings drew controversy almost immediately. Other business owners complained that the graffiti-style pictures and letterings cheapened the neighborhood, with one saying it made the area look like East Los Angeles.

Spurred by the complaints, city officials contended that the murals, which incorporated the names and phone numbers of the businesses, were actually a form of advertising. They told the business owners that city guidelines require them to seek permits for signs. The permits cost $21 plus $33 for each square foot of the sign.

After receiving two citations for violating the sign ordinance, Super Auto Repair painted over its mural on July 26. Tatco Inc. applied for a permit to keep the portion of the mural that included the business name. But soon after the city granted the permit, co-owner Sheila Townend hired a group of youths to paint over the entire mural.

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Townend said she decided to paint over the mural because she found it “a little gaudy . . . a little too busy.” But, she said, she decided to fight for her right to keep part of it as a way of showing support for the youths who painted it.

“I wanted a point made that it was unfair of (city officials) to be prejudiced” against the style of the murals, Townend said. “Also, these kids never had anyone stick up for them or fight for them.”

Carlos Marin may apply for a permit in the next month or two to redo the murals, which have been covered with a coat of sky-blue paint. But his legal troubles have left his brother, Roy, so embittered that the Lawndale native is now planning to move to Torrance. To express his disillusionment with the city’s reaction, he mounted a ladder Tuesday morning to fly a U.S. flag from the top of the building.

“We have a right to express who we are as Mexican-Americans,” Roy Marin said. “No matter what they do to us, we’re still Americans.”

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