The Volkswagen Bug with an exceptionally loud muffler speeds past for the third time. I am standing on a ladder painting over crudely sprayed graffiti in the freeway underpass. It's the underpass on my street--Radford Avenue at the Ventura Freeway--one block from my home.
Usually, I paint over graffiti in the bright light of morning. Even then, I feel ever so slightly at risk. But I'm more than a little edgy now that it's dusk and getting darker in shadows of the underpass. As I blot out the word "BEWARE!" sprayed above a tagger's signature, the car with its troika of skinhead passengers roars by again and a voice yells out "It won't do any good."
I know the graffiti will appear again, as it has in the past. My program is to paint out the graffiti as soon as it appears, and reclaim the neighborhood for its residents.
Finishing, I fold my ladder and head home, bucket and brush in hand. The car goes past the intersection, makes a U-turn and comes slowly toward me as I reach my house. I reason that if they intended to shoot me, they would have gotten me under the freeway. Even so, I'm apprehensive. If they jump me, I momentarily fantasize, I will try to bite off an ear. That way, at least one of my assailants can be identified by matching the ear fragment clenched in my teeth. You ask, who but a fool could think this way? But I'm on my turf and even a small dog in its own yard will try bark down an intruding mastiff.
As I reach my gate the car pulls to a stop and one of the skinheads says, "Why did you paint it out?" Clearly this is a trick question with no safe answer. All three are grinning like sharks, enjoying my anxiety and the menace of their presence. Teenage white boys with shaved heads and shiny teeth, clean short-sleeved shirts and a polished car with a trick muffler. Rich kids, I think. Probably the spawn of studio executives. Fumbling for the right words, I blurt out, "I paint out graffiti so it doesn't migrate into the neighborhood; it just doesn't look good." One of the boys responds, "That tag wasn't good work." And I quip, "If it looked good, I'd leave it there." "You're being sarcastic," sneers the kid in the back seat. He's got me, I think to myself. What can I say?
I put the ladder and paint can aside, as casually as I can manage. My tormentors know where I live so I can't just run into my house. The people I love and care for are in there, only a few feet away, potential hostages all. The confrontation has to be resolved, defused. I have to do or say something, but I don't know what.
My intention is to be engaging, maintain the conversation, as I take a step toward the car. Suddenly seat belts are snapped loose, like weapons being cocked for action. They're ready if I try anything. I heed the message and halt. "You should be careful," the driver says. They are all still smiling, teeth clenched, tightly wound. "If the guy who did it caught you painting over his work, you would get hurt." 'Do you know who did it?" I ask. "Sure," he says. There is a moment of silence.
Looking at me he sees an ordinary white guy with gray hair, a few years older than his parents. Finally he continues, "If you want to get rid of tags, don't do it yourself. Call the Community Service Office. They'll make us come out and paint over it. We'll do a better job." And with those words of advice, the encounter is over.
The car speeds away leaving me alone in the falling darkness. Alone with the searing image of those dangerous smiles.
That was some time ago. In the moment of its unfolding, the possibility of a terrible outcome seemed real, and I was scared. And I've thought about my response, "If it looked good I'd leave it there." The fact is, I occasionally see a freeway wall with multicolored graffiti of arresting beauty. I can live with art.
And I can live with kids who shave their heads; that's fashionable and cool. It's the game taggers are playing that troubles me. A game that compels them to mark "their" territory in the manner of dogs and wild animals. A game about status and respect from peers; a game of disrespect toward everyone else. A game of ego with a dark underbelly linked to gangs and turf wars. Those who play the game are willing to take risks. And willing to be, or appear to be, dangerous.