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 the modern day San Fernando Valley, 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 sometimes angry face-off occurred Tuesday in the offices of City Councilman Richard Alarcon, whose aides were trying to dispel the tension between a group that promotes graffiti as art and the Sylmar Graffiti Busters, one of the more successful graffiti removal efforts in Los Angeles.
The focus of the tension, which has been building for several months, is a green-, blue- and purple-hued mural painted in July 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.
Fifteen youthful 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 of it--even one sanctioned by the property owner--something of a slap in the face.
Callers angry about the mural lit up the Sylmar 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 it 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 that the 30 or so taggers and ex-taggers who attend his weekly meetings are considered “the enemy” by many in their communities, but says “I don’t believe that.”
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. “It’s increasing.”
Rather than confront his young taggers with their crimes, Avelar said, he tries to show them the difference between vandalism and graffiti-style art. And he tries to arrange for places where they can demonstrate their talents.
Van Pfister, the gas station owner who asked Avelar’s group to paint the contested mural, said that he did it as a last resort. His building had been hit with graffiti nightly for two years and he was tired of spending $400 a month on paint.
The youths who created the mural “seemed like a bunch of lost souls trying to express themselves,” he said. “They wanted to put a mural up and be able to say, ‘I did that.’ ”
Pfister said the work has cut other graffiti on his building 80%. He even agreed to have Avelar’s group paint new murals every two months, but the dispute with Graffiti Busters has squelched that plan.
Now, Avelar’s group is designing a new mural, which will be permanent and will be devoid of any tagger crew monikers. But the compromise worries Pfister.
“If I do one more mural and tell them that’s all, the kids will tag the heck out of this building,” he said. “I don’t know what the answer is. I thought I’d try something. It’s easy for people to say that I gave in to them.”
But in this debate, even the smallest points can divide the two sides.
Tom Weissbarth, president of Sylmar Graffiti Busters, said at Tuesday’s meeting that he would like any new mural to 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. “They have to look at it,” he said. “It’s common courtesy.”
But Avelar and two teen-agers at the meeting made it clear that Weissbarth is not likely to get such concessions.
Jessica, 18, who considers herself a graffiti artist, said “we’d 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.
In the end, the two sides agreed to disagree. Avelar and his group will do another mural, in a style they deem appropriate, but it won’t have any crew monikers in it. Then they’ll look elsewhere for walls to paint.
Many of the taggers said they don’t intend to quit making graffiti. “They want to wipe us out,” said Circle, an 18-year-old who admits he’s been arrested six times for vandalism. “But graffiti will never die. It will only multiply.”
* RELATED GRAPHIC: B16