There's No Ending Graffiti

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a silent scourge that just doesn't let up. It leaves ugly lesions scrawled on walls, windows and railroad trestles. It can be a running narrative of gang warfare or the signature of a disenfranchised youth seeking his own brand of glory. To property owners, it is a festering wound, a cowardly affront, a sign of neighborhood decline.

Graffiti, by most accounts, is here to stay. It is ubiquitous, having spread from the urban core to the suburbs and rural farmlands. It has spawned its own lexicon, international magazines and Web sites. American-style graffiti can be found in remote villages in the mountains of Mexico and on walls in the shadow of the Acropolis in Greece.

In Los Angeles County, cities and neighborhoods have been stepping up the war against graffiti for more than 10 years. Police track the most prolific graffiti vandals, commonly known as taggers. Laws prohibit minors from buying spray paint and make parents liable for their children's vandalism. Dozens of abatement crews roll into the streets every morning, erasing the night's scars as quietly as they were inflicted.

In those areas where the most vigilant efforts have been concentrated, the streets are noticeably cleaner than five years ago. But in other neighborhoods, graffiti has taken root, marring storefronts, signs, buses and freeway overpasses. The victories in these battlefronts are patchy, never amounting to a total rout. The vandalism resurfaces when no one is there to fight it.

"In some areas, the graffiti has improved significantly," said Delphia Jones, director of Operation Cleansweep at the Los Angeles Department of Public Works. "In some areas, because of the influx and creation of new gangs, it's gotten a lot worse."

The large-scale, colorful works of graffiti--the so-called "piecing" that gained fame in the '80s--have waned, authorities say. But gang graffiti has increased, bringing more tags into residential and commercial areas. It's most prevalent at the border between the turf of two gangs, where rivals tag over each other's tags, leaving a witch's hair mess of paint on homes and signs.

"It's a continuous battle," said Junious Fontenot of Caltrans, who supervises four graffiti abatement crews in South L.A. "We can't keep up."

Or as Sheriff's Deputy Dennis Porter put it: "We're holding the line. We're not winning or losing."

Vistas of Beige Paint and Razor Wire

Even success is not always pretty. Once-scenic brick storefronts are now lacquer-smooth with dozens of coats of palomino beige. Freeway signs are ringed with ominous loops of razor wire to discourage would-be taggers. Windows are shuttered with steel curtains and stucco walls are splotched with haphazard rectangles of mismatched paint.

Countywide, the 88 incorporated cities and numerous agencies spend about $42 million a year on graffiti removal, officials said. The MTA alone spends more than $1 million a month. The Department of Public Works in Los Angeles spends about $2.5 million annually. Other efforts involve the county, school districts, the railroads, Caltrans and law enforcement agencies.

"The streets look better to the people because a lot of money has gone into it," said Maryanne Hayashi, director of Central City Action Committee, a group contracted by the public works department to remove the graffiti.

The city has created so-called zero-tolerance zones on heavily traveled streets. Crews are contracted to patrol these thoroughfares daily and paint out the marks soon after they are inscribed. They have hotlines and respond to complaints from residents and their City Council members.

Some critics say these programs merely sink money into a losing battle: In the course of a day a wall might be tagged, painted over and tagged again.

"All these abatement programs have done is to make money for these companies," said Alex Alonzo, a USC graduate student who has monitored graffiti in Los Angeles for years and is respected in academic and law enforcement circles for his expertise. "The graffiti is being cleaned up quickly. But it's costing so much money and there's no deterrent."

Yet store owners in targeted areas said the abatement efforts have dramatically improved the look of their neighborhoods.

"The cleanup is definitely better," said Lionel Hernandez, owner of the Farmacia Profesional on Whittier Boulevard in Boyle Heights. "But the graffiti is still there." Hernandez, whose family has owned the pharmacy since 1939, said graffiti was unbearable 10 years ago and remained on walls indefinitely because there were no crews to clean it up.

"You couldn't control it," he said. "They were painting doorknobs, putting glue in your locks."

Now, youngsters still scratch their tags on his windows and leave the occasional spray-painted moniker on his biggest wall. Hernandez painted vines on that wall, in hopes that taggers would search for less distracted tableaux on which to showcase their work. He said that for the last two years, the street has looked clean and upstanding.

Farther east on the boulevard in unincorporated East Los Angeles, store owners credit relentless abatement work by county contractors, as well as a mural program sponsored by County Supervisor Gloria Molina, for a lack of recent vandalism.

"I've called [the graffiti crews] and they're fabulous," said Minerva Astengo of West Coast Nutrition. "It's amazing how fast they respond."

Painting Over Tags a Risky Job

Frank Bejar, 45, is one of 14 painters for the Central City Action Committee who heads out at dawn to paint over gang tags while the taggers are sleeping. Throughout the morning, he paints curbs, walls, telephone poles and tree trunks. He covers hundreds of square feet of wall in minutes with the smooth swoop of his gas-powered sprayer. He scrubs windows and road signs with solvent. And he takes Polaroid pictures of the tags for the Police Department's anti-gang unit.

"Sometimes I'll have to paint a wall twice a day," he said. "They'll come back in five minutes. They're like dogs peeing on a pole."

Bejar, who has been threatened by taggers at gunpoint, and the other painters work on some of the city's roughest streets. They are instructed to avoid painting over the R.I.P. tags for slain gang members out of fear that it will provoke retaliation. Sometimes they reluctantly take police escorts, but see that as a gesture to gang members that they are scared. They leave at the first sign of real danger.

"We're not going to be dead heroes over graffiti," said Hayashi.

The theory behind abatement is that vandals will eventually tire of wasting time and paint, only to see their work "buffed out" the following morning.

But Alonzo and others said this holds true only with the piecers, who invest more time in their work. Taggers, who can scrawl their monikers in seconds and use little paint, are less deterred by such efforts.

The piecers--also called "bombers"--use dramatic colors and open letters, and consider their work a form of artistic expression. They usually search for walls--or "landmarks"--where they know their work will remain. They avoid the zero-tolerance areas.

"It's common sense that you'll go to a different place," said Richard, a 17-year-old piecer from Watts. "If it has value to you, you want people to see it, you want it to stay."

Richard was a tagger before he became a piecer. He etched his moniker on MTA bus windows and sprayed it on the sides of boxcars, a means to transport his name across the nation. The adolescent used oil-based crayons called "mean streaks" and had older friends buy spray paint at hardware stores.

His work was dangerous, which of course was part of the thrill. He climbed freeway signs and hung off the sides of overpasses--"hitting the heavens" as taggers call it--and tried to become known in the tagger underworld.

Fame is earned by tagging the hardest-to-reach places, he said. Vandals shimmy up poles using belts and ropes. They hang over bridges, risking their lives while their friends hold their ankles. Some photograph their work, hoping it will appear in the graffiti magazines and Web sites.

Authorities say the public often perceives tagging as a sign of gang activity, which it generally was before the late 1980s.

"Graffiti was causing tremendous fear," said LAPD Officer Jerry Beck, who tracks graffiti vandalism in the San Fernando Valley. "People just didn't know the difference between gangs and tagging."

In many areas, taggers may not be gang members. Richard said he wouldn't tag in a gang neighborhood for fear of attack. Often taggers are just a crew of less artistic piecers, whose sole purpose is to make a name through graffiti.

Volunteers a Key Part of Abatement Effort

Beck works with more than 100 community volunteers in the Valley, called the Community Tagger Task Force. His foot soldiers take pictures with Polaroid cameras, which Beck uses to monitor taggers' activities, and report the vandalism immediately. He has served about 50 search warrants and arrested almost as many people, he said.

"We've seen an almost total eradication of graffiti along the Ventura Boulevard corridor," said Cliff Reston, a board member of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., attributing the decline to the task force.

Prosecutors say the law enforcement effort has worked, though it is difficult to pursue felony charges.

Previously, the task force could take pictures of numerous works by a single tagger, said Richard Schmidt, deputy city attorney in charge of the Van Nuys branch. If the combined damage totaled more than $5,000, the vandal would be charged with a felony, he said. But an appellate court later ruled that authorities could not "aggregate" taggers' acts of vandalism to obtain felony charges. Most charges are now misdemeanors.

Some say the war on graffiti would be more effective if the many individual efforts, like the Community Tagger Task Force, were more centralized. Now, scores of cities and police departments have their own cleanup approaches. Some work through law enforcement, some don't. The Community Tagger Task Force is offered in the Valley, but not in the Los Angeles Basin. Caltrans can't clean up the lingering graffiti on the train overpasses above its freeways. That's the railroad's job.

"If we would all sit down and have a battle plan, that would be great," said Sheriff's Deputy Porter. "It would be much more effective than each individual community and each police department doing their own thing."

The hotline to report graffiti in Los Angeles County is (800) 675-4357.

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