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He’s Giving Them the Brushoff

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As artistic desecration, it doesn’t rank with grease-penciling mustaches on Michelangelos.

But Tony Curtis has been taking it on the chin lately. And once across both eyes. Twice he’s been tagged with multicolored balloon lettering, ear to ear.

“I just wish I could catch ‘em,” growls George Sportelli, a wad of blue towel in one hand, a half-gallon can of Lift Off graffiti solvent in the other. “I’d pour some of this over them and light it.”

He wouldn’t, of course. Sportelli, 27, is too much of the sensitive artist for that. He’s also quite conscious, thank you very much, of nocturnal retaliation by the Krylon and Spray-Glo underworld.

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So Sportelli is playing the Gandhian gambit; a one-man program of passive resistance and instant cleanup aimed at beating those whose spray can scribblings writhe endlessly, senselessly wherever there’s flat space untagged alongside the Hollywood Freeway.

Which isn’t much.

Nor, in the past, has there been a lot to smile about where weeds are thick as litter on Caltrans’ unbonny banks beneath the Sunset Boulevard overpass of the southbound 101.

Eight months ago, Sportelli, a T-shirt artist turned muralist schooled at Otis College of Art and Design, decided to brighten these shadows by using one shoulder of the overpass as a concrete canvas for a fitting Hollywood attraction: a Cubist portrait of actor Curtis.

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The 12-foot face has the seen-it-all eyes of a Bronx childhood, with rich black curls swept into a DA. It’s from a United Artists still of Curtis that a generation of ‘50s teenagers, from Tustin to Tottenham, once propped before their barbers.

A smaller, younger, yet larger than life-sized figure of Curtis is painted alongside. He’s leaning, arms folded to bring out the biceps; sullen in a white T-shirt and black pants, the uniform of bobby-soxers, street rumbles and the Amboy Dukes.

“It was the first and only mural I’ve done on a freeway and was intended in part to promote my work,” says Sportelli. In five years of painting Southern California, his outdoors portfolio stretches from Anthony Quinn at Tommy’s Burgers in Riverside to Elvis and other rock colleagues on the Crush Bar at Cahuenga and Hollywood boulevards. “I also wanted to add a little color to the Hollywood scene, which has become so dingy.”

He has certainly brought a lift to the lives of a million or so commuters who drive past this point each week. Before the mural, the only flash of color at Sunset and the Hollywood Freeway was the yellow east wall of Denny’s.

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Sportelli, reared and living in Hemet, a kid who sketched through high school with thoughts of becoming a comic book cartoonist, brush-painted Curtis in water-based enamel. With a city permit and approval of Caltrans, the work took two weeks last May.

“I didn’t want to make a statement about black oppression or the Mexican Revolution,” Sportelli says. “I did want a tribute to Curtis, because he is into art and painting him continues my theme of Hollywood legends and nostalgia. Not only is he a Hollywood legend, he’s still alive.

“And I wanted to make a dead wall come to life and give people something to chat about. That’s why art exists.”

Sadly, it’s also why vandalism prevails in areas of Los Angeles where taggers scrawl more territorial slogans and gang names than cops write tickets.

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“Taco” is a Hollywood local who specializes in daubing blue dumpsters. “NFLKAOS” is a tagging crew whose name takes up yards of freeway wall between Sunset and Santa Monica, enough for a first down. “Jorus,” at obvious risk of becoming road kill, hits overpass pillars sprouting from medians.

But it was “Celt,” “Mur” and “Kto,” three times in eight months, who went Hollywood and made over Tony Curtis. The last time, two weeks ago.

“Being in that neighborhood and that close to the freeway, I expected it to happen,” Sportelli says. “At first there was a sense of violation. If they want to do something like that, let ‘em get their own wall to paint.

“Then anger. Because I didn’t go to all that trouble to have some guys mess it up in five minutes. Then a decision. As soon as I find out there’s graffiti there, it’s coming off.”

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For the first cleanup, Sportelli repainted the entire portrait. In anticipation of the next assault, he applied a liquid sealant and protective shield. The second and third daubings didn’t stick and were wiped off in an hour.

Now Sportelli’s L.A. visits always include a drive past Curtis to check his complexion. The artist has also built a cadre of spotters among friends and daily commuters so graffiti “isn’t there more than a week.”

“I think it bums taggers out when they see it’s clean again, and I get to feel like Rocky who has just won the fight. That tells people that one person is battling back, and that they can share this blow against graffiti,” he says.

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Los Angeles is considered mural-friendly, even a world capital of alfresco art with more than 500 major examples ranging from social protest to artistic whimsy. Some say the mural is a quintessential Southern California art form, ideally suited to our mobile population, soft climate, multiethnicity and taste for wild decoration.

And there was a time when murals were sacrosanct and off-limits to graffiti. Especially paintings showing family or religions. But now, despite city commissions and private preservation groups, even the classics are being tagged.

Marathon runners on the San Diego Freeway are constantly being slowed, tripped by taggers. A pointing cop at the Four Level is disappearing beneath daily vandalism. Kent Twitchell saw his “Old Woman of the Freeway” painted over when a building changed owners.

Even Twitchell’s towering, much filmed and photographed “Bride and Groom,” four years in the painting on a wall of the Victor Clothing Co., downtown at Broadway and 3rd Street, has been attacked from the ground up.

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“Nothing is sacred,” Sportelli complains, “although the religious murals seem to survive a little longer. Maybe I should have called my work: ‘Tony Curtis Playing God.’ ”

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Sportelli is a comer. Not yet an Eloy “Zorba the Greek” Torres or Richard “Hollywood Jazz 1945-1972" Wyatt, he has done actress-model Julie Strain alongside Sunshine Glass across from Hollywood High, and rocker Chuck Negron for Coconut Teaszer on Sunset. He is no stranger to four-figure assignments.

Twitchell has written of his admiration and autographed an “Old Woman” postcard for Sportelli. And there is his new friendship with Tony Curtis.

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“George is outstanding,” Curtis says. “You come down the freeway and notice the picture sharpens up at distance, then softens as you go by.”

Curtis thinks his portrait captures the period and tempo of ‘50s Hollywood and Los Angeles.

“I like George’s spirit,” he says. “He won’t let anyone defile his work. And we’re going to do a mural together.”

Which suggests one day, Curtis will be out there, rag and Lift Off in hand, swabbing away at graffiti.

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Coming soon, to a wall near you.


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