SAN GABRIEL VALLEY COVER STORY : Stemming the Tide of Graffiti : Taggers seem to steer clear of walls painted with vines, leaves and other foliage. It's a quickly blooming strategy in the war against the spray-painters.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They adorn miles and miles of walls along the streets of La Puente, Bassett and neighboring areas: simple and often primitive-looking painted green leaves on swirling brown vines.

Invariably, those unacquainted with the anti-graffiti tactic scoff at first hearing the idea. Oh sure, painted vines will stop taggers who routinely jump fences, scale heights, cross barbed wire, wriggle through bushes and ignore barking dogs to spray-paint monikers on seemingly inaccessible walls.

But for some unknown reason, the vines work. It's a mystery even to those who have spent years stamping a paint-laden, vine-shaped sponge onto fresh coats of Navajo white.

Just ask the vine ladies of La Puente: two women who began painting the vines 15 years ago and two others who now want to start nonprofit anti-graffiti corporations using the idea.

"I honestly don't know why it works," said Loretta Chase, who lives in unincorporated La Puente and estimates she has painted 10 miles of the vines in the past three years.

But the idea is spreading.

The vines sprouted on walls in East Los Angeles last year thanks to the Maravilla Foundation, a nonprofit neighborhood cleanup agency that took its painting lessons from La Puente. Chase painted the faux vines on the parking lot walls at the Hollywood Bowl and the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, at their request. And Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina has adopted La Puente's painted greens as part of the anti-graffiti effort that her office occasionally supervises in her district.

"That's our M.O. now; we don't just do (plain) paint-overs," said Molina's press deputy, Robert Alaniz. "Once they paint vines and leaves on a wall, you don't see any more graffiti."

Some say the vines keep off graffiti because a spray-painted name gets visually lost amid the tangle of ersatz leaves and stems.

Others say most of the vines are tended by vigilant touch-up crews who simply add a green leaf or two to cover up stray graffiti.

Still others suggest that community pride is the secret, with taggers driven away by the outpouring of neighborhood cooperation.

Typically, most of the vine-painting efforts include paint donated by nonprofit agencies or neighborhood stores. With community activists, local politicians and schools handling the organizing chores, crews of children, parents and even taggers themselves put up the vines in a Saturday afternoon of Tom Sawyer-like painting enthusiasm. Neighbors honk and wave, provide free drinks and food and even drop whatever they're doing to lend a hand, painters report.

What tagger would dare incur the wrath of an entire neighborhood once the walls are finished, asks William Gonzalez, a manager with the Maravilla Foundation. The nonprofit anti-graffiti and neighborhood cleanup agency in East Los Angeles has covered walls with Navajo white in the past year for various vine-painting projects in East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley, Gonzalez said.

"A lot of the kids tell their older brothers, 'Don't mess with the wall because we did it,' " he added. "I was a skeptic myself, but it works."

But why vines?

The idea sprang from energetic Jo Ann Sanchez, a 55-year-old North Whittier homemaker who in the summer of 1978 was searching for a project for her newly established Avocado Heights Women's Club, a group that included residents from La Puente, Bassett, North Whittier and Hacienda Heights. The women decided to beautify the graffiti-blighted block walls along Workman Mill Road in Bassett.

"It was my idea to plant creeping fig vines, the kind used on freeways," said Sanchez, a former model and manicurist who sports personalized license plates reading "2 HUNEY," a variation on her nickname, Honey. "We figured if we covered the walls in green it would be beautiful and they wouldn't write on them."

The group got permission from the 69 homeowners whose block walls bordered the then-rural thoroughfare. Sanchez and her women's club members dug holes, stuck the baby vines in the dirt and waited. But the plants withered under homeowner neglect and abuse from bicycle-riding children.

Undaunted, Sanchez latched onto an idea borrowed from a neighbor who had seen painted vines in Newport Beach. Why not here? she thought. So, the women's club members armed themselves with 25 gallons of paint and marched out to the block walls to try their artistic hands on a half-mile stretch. Twirling a four-inch-wide roller brush to create leaves took some skill, and the results were mixed, Sanchez said.

"Some of (the walls) were beautiful and some were horrible. I mean, real eyesores," she said.

Still, the vines were a unique improvement over the graffiti, and the project garnered some small press coverage, she said. Then, the club broke up, the vines faded over time, more houses sprang up along Workman Mill Road and graffiti took over again.

Enter Chase, 50, a former women's club member, who decided three years ago to revive the vines. With the help of the Workman Mill Homeowner's Assn., which raised $1,000, and painting tips from Sanchez, Chase and other volunteers decided to give the vines a more coherent look.

They adopted a technique by which sponges cut in the shape of leaves could be dipped into paint and stamped onto the walls. The sponges enable small children to help on the project and speed up the work, said Chase, a tall, thin woman who exudes cheery enthusiasm when she talks about the vines.

Painting the five miles of block walls on both sides of Workman Mill Road and on nearby streets took every Saturday for four months in 1991, Chase said. The group threw a big potluck dinner to celebrate at the end, but it wasn't over for Chase.

Molina's office has called her to help with numerous vine-painting projects in neighboring areas. Chase paints the stems herself, gives some basic leaf-sponging information and oversees volunteers gathered by others, she said. Increasingly, she spots painted vines cropping up on walls she never touched.

"A lot of people have picked up on it," Chase said. "The artwork is different, but it's basically leaves and vines."

One woman who picked up on it recently is Irma Sandoval, a Guatemalan immigrant and La Puente mother of three. Despite her poor English, Sandoval has won recognition for countless hours of volunteer work in local schools and for her vine painting.

"My mom is famous!" boasts her 14-year-old son, Kenneth. Indeed, Sandoval, 47, said that she has organized schoolchildren and adults to help paint more than 90 walls with vines. Paint has come from donations or from state Assemblywoman Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), whose office has helped Sandoval with some of the painting projects.

A quiet, earnest woman with a bold decorating style--the walkway to her house is hung with bright orange papier-mache parrots to match the house's trim--Sandoval began painting vines as an offshoot of the arts and crafts work she was teaching neighborhood children three years ago. The idea was to give the children a task and clean up the neighborhood at the same time.

She printed T-shirts bearing the logo "Hope in Youth," which are worn by some of her charges. Now, she said, she would like to create a nonprofit corporation to have the many Spanish-speaking immigrant children who have settled in La Puente and neighboring areas paint vines and embark on other craft projects.

Although she has begun only the preliminary steps to create the agency, she is serene. "I believe that God is going to help me (on to) where I am supposed to go," she said simply.

Of similar, deeply held faith is Valerie Brannon, another La Puente vine painter. The painting bug bit her hard last year, said Brannon, 39, the mother of a 9-year-old boy.

After joining a community group in what she thought would be a one-time, anti-graffiti vine-painting outing in La Puente in May last year, Brannon couldn't put the paintbrush down.

Tanned and athletic-looking from her previous years as a riding instructor and horse-stable owner, Brannon went on to paint 16 other murals herself in the streets surrounding her La Puente home. One includes a vine mural blocks long running the entire length of the Alta-Dena dairy fence on Hambledon Avenue in the City of Industry.

Her work, however, departs from simple painted leaves and stems. She encourages children to paint small animals and scenes in the spaces between the leaves. She herself, with no artistic training, has begun doing full-fledged mural panels, including a number of animals in a Noah's ark scene, a Nativity and Virgin Mary murals, as well as nature scenes with wolves and dinosaurs.

Some help has come from the Maravilla Foundation, but Brannon said she has bought thousands of dollars of paint out of her salary as a licensed vocational nurse at a nearby convalescent home.

"I like to paint," she said. "It's what drives my life."

Every morning she gets up at 6:30 to drive past her murals. If there's any defacement, she whips out paint kept at the ready in her Honda Civic hatchback.

"They think I'm nuts," Brannon said of the gang members she encounters on the street. " 'La Torita!' they used to shout at me from their cars, 'the stubborn little bull.' But now they call me the 'Rainbow Lady.' "

The new moniker comes from the logo she uses on her murals, a picture of a brush painting a rainbow with a heart underneath. Two months ago, she quit her job. Now, like Sandoval, she wants to form a nonprofit corporation to paint murals full time using her logo, Young Hearts With Hope.

Also like Sandoval, she believes God will direct her efforts if it is meant to be.

"Three times I prayed for art students and they just walked up," she said of occasions when she was trying to paint something that she lacked the technical training to carry out. "The Lord knows the plans for Young Hearts With Hope. He has already decided it. So far, all the doors have been opened to us."

All the vine painting in her city and surrounding areas delights Sanchez, who started it all in the San Gabriel Valley 15 years ago.

"It surprises me to see the vines up here and up there," she said. "Sometimes it's not so pretty, but still, it's prettier than graffiti."

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