Garage owner Sam Yoshida was taken by surprise one morning last week when a clunky 1972 Dodge pickup truck marked "Los Angeles Police Department" pulled up in front of his shop, then rapidly unloaded a white-overalled crew that began painting over the graffiti on his wall before he even had time to make it to the sidewalk.
"I was planning on painting this myself, but they beat me to it," said a grateful Yoshida, who has owned his repair shop at Pico Boulevard and 5th Avenue for 17 years and has been painting out graffiti on his outer wall for about a decade.
In less than half an hour, the painters had not only removed the graffiti on his wall, but also on that of a Guatemalan restaurant across the street. Then, as quickly as they came, they packed up their paint and rollers and headed off to their next painting mission.
The old Dodge and its graffiti-removal team have become the Wilshire Division's first full-time weapon in the battle against graffiti. Every day, Officer Eric Garcia gathers his crew of community service workers, piles them into the truck and scours the city for sites that need painting.
"I had to start this from ground zero," said Garcia, a former patrolman who was given the task of putting together an anti-graffiti unit three months ago, after his superiors noted his success in organizing local merchants to paint out graffiti and clean up litter.
Working with a limited budget, Garcia decided to turn the remains of an aging truck he found in a police salvage yard into a graffiti-removal-mobile. Police mechanics went over the truck to make it roadworthy, then Garcia added an old, donated trailer, and the truck was ready for action.
He then solicited a donation of recycled paint from the Department of Public Works' Operation Clean Sweep and enlisted a team of community service workers, who are putting in hours in lieu of jail time for traffic violations.
With the truck full of workers and the trailer full of painting equipment, the Wilshire anti-graffiti unit finally hit the streets for a series of community cleanups two months ago, and has been painting full time for the past few weeks.
"The good thing about doing this kind of work is that you feel you're doing it not just to benefit yourself, but also to benefit the community," said Belinda, who didn't want her last name used. She was working off her traffic tickets by painting a graffiti-covered carport in an alley off Washington Boulevard.
Between herself and nine other painters, the entire carport was finished in about 20 minutes.
"These people are going to come home tonight and say, 'What happened?' " Garcia said, laughing.
Some property owners call Garcia's graffiti hot line at the police station to report sites that need painting, but many are just places police have noticed on their rounds, he said. Although the team attempts to make contact with the owners and have them sign approval forms, they have not had any complaints from those who didn't anticipate the paint-outs. Some property owners have been so grateful they have even fed the workers lunch, he said.
So far, the graffiti-removal team has painted about 300 sites, most of them in the Mid-City area. Almost half are sites they have already painted, and Garcia is hopeful that after a few more rapid responses, the incidence of those sites being repeatedly tagged will decrease.
One of his goals as Wilshire graffiti czar is to get the community more involved not only in reporting tagged sites, but also in making their walls less attractive to taggers by painting murals or decorating their walls in a manner that will discourage graffiti.
"Blank white walls attract (the taggers') attention," said Brenda Watson, a native of Guatemala who owns the restaurant Garcia's crew painted at Pico and 5th. "My sister is an artist, and she's going to paint a mural on this wall. We're also trying to get other businesses to let us paint murals for them."
The one thing the Wilshire anti-graffiti unit cannot offer its clients is a range of colors, since most recycled paint used by the city for graffiti removal is a blend of various colors that usually turns out beige or light brown.
"This whole division is going to be beige," Garcia said half-seriously, noting several beige walls along Pico the team has already painted.
"One of those high-tech graffiti-removal machines that matches the color of paint on a wall costs about $50,000," Garcia said. "But for $50,000, I can get a lot of paint."
The Wilshire Division's graffiti hot line is (213) 847-2008, Ext. 14.