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Tagged, You’re It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The vans roll out each morning at 7, seven days a week, their crews of court-referred laborers on a mission: to erase the graffiti on public and private property all through the San Fernando Valley.

For these minor criminals clad in orange vests and ordered to perform community service, it’s a daily grind where supply never seems to exceed demand.

But, in the war of attrition between taggers looking for recognition and communities trying to keep their businesses and homes moniker-free, efforts started a few years ago seem finally to be paying off.

“The word has gotten around to taggers that we’re hot on their trail,” said Ivor Alan-Lee, who coordinates volunteers for the Community Tagger Task Force, a group of residents, business owners and police officials who track and prosecute graffiti artists throughout the Valley.

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The task force, which began in 1993, tries to eliminate graffiti by deploying 150 volunteers armed with Polaroids to patrol areas targeted on the basis of police reports and other evidence of repeated tagging.

Alan-Lee, who collects the reports and plots tagging trends, says there has been a noticeable decrease in such vandalism, with the number of reported incidents dropping from about 100 to 150 each month in 1995 to 40 to 60 now. And, the police have been successful in turning reports into convictions, said LAPD Officer Jerry Beck. Since its start, he said, the task force has produced 96 convictions.

Deputy City Atty. Debra Siedorf, although she could not provide conviction statistics for graffiti alone, agreed that the combined efforts of police and residents in the Valley have helped get tagging under control.

“I think people were just getting tired of it,” Siedorf said.

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The community task force, which is run out of the LAPD’s Van Nuys Division, is the only one of its kind in the Police Department and serves as an information clearinghouse on taggers, Beck said. But its success may have a downside: Beck said taggers have told him they are moving out of the Valley and hitting places in East Los Angeles, downtown and the Hollywood area, where residents have yet to organize.

Still, another group that monitors graffiti countywide says tagging has been on a decline all through the city and surrounding areas.

“We’ve put less money into removal, and the money being spent is being used better,” said Valerie Hill of the Multi-Agency Graffiti Intervention Committee, a regional governmental group better known as MAGIC.

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Preliminary results of a recent survey by MAGIC of the money various cities and law enforcement agencies are spending on removal show their budgets have been shrinking, apparently in response to decreased demand. This year’s collective budgets are 50% less than the previous year’s, and next year’s should be 40% less than this year’s, according to the survey of about 70 municipalities and police departments in Southern California.

About 33% of the respondents say graffiti is on the decline; 28% say it’s increasing, while 40% say it’s at a constant level, according to the survey.

Hill said the committee itself has become more efficient by contracting with for-profit companies to remove graffiti. They are more skilled, more willing to work and more dependable, she said, than the county convicts ordered to perform community service as part of their sentences.

“It’s become a whole new industry,” Hill said.

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But as police and government officials are sensing some victory in the war on tagging, many community groups and workers on the front lines remain skeptical. These are the residents and merchants who spend many days sanding or painting over graffiti, or chemically removing it, and they report that the numbers have remained constant.

At New Directions for Youth, one of several agencies that supervises and counsels court-ordered cleanup crews, directors report a significant increase in the square-footage cleaned by their workers, from 30,000 square feet a month five years ago to 100,000 square feet a month today.

But, said assistant projects director Denna Mulverhill, the jump coincides with an increase in funding from the city three years ago, which allowed the organization to double its staff, which in turn enabled the group to organize more work crews.

“I’d say tagging is at a level pace,” Mulverhill said.

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Out in the field, Tony Gutierrez of Van Nuys, who has a long history of petty criminal convictions and has become a 20-year veteran of graffiti removal, said he doesn’t feel the optimism of a declining trend. Rather, he speaks of enduring the frustration of painting over monikers again and again. Gutierrez, 30, has gotten so good in his many years of community service that he’s become a professional house painter.

“I don’t think it will ever end; we’ll never get rid of it,” said Gutierrez, who most recently has been working through New Directions for Youth. “As soon as you get rid of it, it comes right back.”

Tom Weissbarth, president of Sylmar Graffiti Busters, said the square footage cleaned by his crews is about the same--18,000 to 36,000 square feet a month--depending on the season. Summer is the most active for taggers.

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“When I look at the difference between 1994 and 1996, it’s not that big,” Weissbarth said.

The LAPD’s Beck said Sylmar Graffiti Busters and the Valley’s three other community-based cleanup organizations--New Directions for Youth, Sun Valley Graffiti Busters and El Centro de Amistad--work with the police by alerting them to graffiti before they clean it. The groups are out between five and seven days a week, completing requests for graffiti removal or searching for graffiti.

The war on graffiti may get a boost later this year when state legislators reintroduce a measure that would make tagging easier to prosecute as a felony. The bill would allow prosecutors to add up a tagger’s total damage from multiple acts of vandalism in order to more easily meet the $5,000 threshold for a felony. A similar bill was killed last year in the state Senate.

The tougher penalties that accompany a felony conviction might persuade younger taggers to stop, Beck said, noting that a concentrated effort against repeat offenders has been a deterrent for novices.

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“Now we don’t see the young taggers emulating the old taggers’ style,” Beck said, adding that most taggers in the Valley consider themselves writers, who paint random creations, rather than common vandals.

And the once-popular “bomb runs,” in which two gangs challenge one another in graffiti duels, have ceased in the last two years, Beck said.

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Both Beck and Alan-Lee said their volunteers have become very precise in taking reports and gathering evidence. They are continually on the streets, looking for graffiti.

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“We’re not just out there taking pictures in gang-infested areas,” said George Pfeiffer, a volunteer.

He said volunteers are trained to take accurate reports, work with the graffiti victims and be aware of safety hazards. Graffiti can be found almost anywhere, Pfeiffer said, so volunteers must always be prepared with camera and pen.

The community-based organizations also monitor their areas, especially the zero tolerance zones, where graffiti must be removed within 24 hours. Many of those areas are in the East Valley, Canoga Park, Reseda and Northridge.

“It’s like a little war. They paint their names on things, and we paint over it,” said Kevin Lukas, a crew supervisor for the Sun Valley Graffiti Busters. “But we have more paint and more workers. That’s the bottom line.”

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Still, some, like Joe Jackson, feel it’s important to get to those potential taggers early. The program director for New Directions for Youth said he sends counselors to elementary and middle schools to talk about graffiti and its effects.

“The message is getting out that it is not cool,” Jackson said. “We are starting to see the results of that effort now in the kinds and amounts of tagging out there now.”

Another, more hands-on, approach is used by New Directions for Youth crew supervisors Carlos Flores and Javier Covarrubias. The cleanup veterans said when they have a crew of taggers, they take it to clean behind the railroad tracks in North Hollywood--one of the most heavily hit places.

“It makes them mad when they have to take their name or a buddy’s name off,” Flores said. “It teaches them a lesson.”

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Where to Call About Graffiti

To report graffiti in the San Fernando Valley, contact:

* Los Angeles Police Department’s Valley Community Tagger Task Force, 6240 Sylmar Ave., Van Nuys, 91401; (818) 756-9803.

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To have graffiti removed, call:

* El Centro de Amistad, 7024 Deering Ave., Canoga Park, 91303; (818) 347-8565.

* Sun Valley Graffiti Busters, 8128 Sunland Blvd., Sun Valley, 91352; (818) 767-3133.

* Sylmar Graffiti Busters, P.O. Box 921294, Sylmar, 91392-1284; (818) 362-8702.

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* New Directions for Youth, 7400 Van Nuys Blvd., Suite 203, Van Nuys, 91405; (818) 375-1000 or fax (818) 375-1014.

* Operation Clean Sweep, 433 S. Spring St., Room 600, Los Angeles, 90013; (800) 611-2489.

* Caltrans, 23922 San Fernando Road, Newhall, 91321; (805) 259-2550.

* Los Angeles County Graffiti Hotline, 900 S. Fremont Ave., Alhambra, 91803; (800) 675-4357.

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