They adorn miles and miles of walls along city streets in the San Gabriel Valley, East Los Angeles and parts of Hollywood: simple and often primitive-looking painted green leaves on swirling brown vines.
Invariably, those unacquainted with the anti-graffiti tactic scoff at the idea. Oh sure, they laugh, 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, they work. "I honestly don't know why," 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. Chase painted the faux vines on the parking lot walls at the Hollywood Bowl and the nearby John Anson Ford Amphitheatre. And Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina has adopted La Puente's painted greens as part of an anti-graffiti effort.
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.
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. The women decided to beautify some graffiti-blighted walls by planting real vines along a neighborhood street, but the plants died.
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 roller brushes and 25 gallons of paint and marched out to paint over a half-mile stretch of block walls.
Then, the club broke up and 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.
She and other volunteers 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.
"A lot of people have picked up on it," Chase said. "The artwork is different, but it's basically leaves and vines."
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."