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Taggers Debate Their Critics, Who See No Art in Graffiti

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the Old West, it would have been the showdown on Main Street, where the outlaws are confronted by the brave if foolhardy townspeople.

In modern day Mission Hills, however, the outlaws were taggers and the townspeople were graffiti-haters who acknowledged that they didn’t know the difference among the good, the bad and the ugly. Moreover, they didn’t care.

The face-off occurred Tuesday in the offices of City Councilman Richard Alarcon, whose aides were trying to dispel tension between a group that promotes graffiti as art and Sylmar Graffiti Busters, one of the more successful removal efforts in Los Angeles.

The focus of the tension, building for months, is a green, blue and purple-hued mural painted on a Mission Hills gas station at the owner’s invitation. Written in sweeping, all-but-indecipherable letters, the mural proclaims “Respect, Peace and Pride in the Neighborhood.” It also features, in much smaller letters, the tags of several of its creators.

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Fifteen self-identified “writers” and “artists” were invited to create the mural. But those who make a moral crusade of wiping out graffiti consider any example--even one sanctioned by a property owner--a slap in the face.

Callers angry about the mural lit up the Northeast San Fernando Valley group’s telephones and those of Operation Cleansweep, the Los Angeles city graffiti removal program. When the anti-graffiti forces found out that those responsible for the mural were members of the Graffiti Alternatives Awareness Program (GAAP), a graffiti art and counseling group sponsored by a publicly funded agency, they were livid.

“If they want to talk about alternatives, then let’s talk about alternatives,” said Tom Ernst, coordinator of Operation Cleansweep. “That’s not an alternative. It looks like graffiti to me.”

On Tuesday, he faced off against Charles Avelar, who coordinates GAAP for New Directions for Youth, a comprehensive social service agency based in Van Nuys. Avelar knows the 30 or so taggers and ex-taggers who attend his weekly meetings are considered the enemy by many in their communities, but he says, “I don’t believe that.”

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He told Ernst and the other graffiti opponents that efforts by public agencies to crack down on tagging--with surveillance squads, tougher laws and by locking up spray cans--isn’t working.

“You can arrest as many kids as you want, but you are not eliminating the problem,” Avelar said.

Avelar tries to arrange places where the youths can demonstrate their talents.

Van Pfister, the gas station owner, said he asked Avelar’s group to paint the mural as a last resort. His station had been hit with graffiti nightly and he was tired of spending $400 a month on paint.

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The artists “seemed like a bunch of lost souls trying to express themselves,” he said. “They wanted to . . . be able to say, ‘I did that.’ ”

Pfister agreed to have Avelar’s group paint new murals every two months, but the dispute with Graffiti Busters squelched that plan. Now the group is designing a permanent mural that will be devoid of crew monikers. But the compromise worries Pfister.

“If I do one more mural and tell them that’s all, the kids wmll tag the heck out of this building,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is.”

The smallest points can divide the two sides.

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Tom Weissbarth, president of Sylmar Graffiti Busters, said any new mural should be done with brushes, because anything done with spray cans would glorify tagging. He also wants neighborhood residents to be able to veto the design as a “common courtesy.”

But Jessica, 18, who considers herself a graffiti artist, said she and others would “walk away” if forced to work on something that didn’t meet their approval.

“Do you think that’s the kind of art we want to do?” she asked the anti-graffiti representatives, referring to samples of murals those groups presented at the session. The examples included heroic images of basketball stars and landscape scenes.

“They want to wipe us out,” said Circle, an 18-year-old who admits he has been arrested six times for vandalism. “But graffiti will never die.”

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