Taggers, Caltrans Take a Toll on Freeway Murals


The huge depictions of brightly colored postage stamps that adorned the Harbor Freeway’s 8th Street offramp have been covered by a coating of dull gray paint.

The same is true a block to the south for the giant portrait of a woman watching over Harbor Freeway traffic. Likewise for nearly half of a colorfully composed tribute to Los Angeles’ car culture on the Hollywood Freeway near Alameda Street.

In a blow to its reputation as the mural capital of the world, Los Angeles has lost several beloved roadside artworks recently, because of an upsurge in vandalism among warring tagging crews and a strict Caltrans policy of eliminating graffiti on freeway walls.


Graffiti has been on the rise on Los Angeles County freeways over the last 18 months and the California Department of Transportation has responded with an aggressive cleanup effort. In the process, Caltrans crews have partly or completely painted over four freeway murals that added a spot of color and inspiration to the commutes of millions of motorists.

Angry artists aim most of their venom at Caltrans, saying the state agency has not done enough to help muralists save their work.

“Caltrans should have a little more respect and not be so quick to destroy them,” said Robin Dunitz, vice president of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, a nonprofit group whose mission is to preserve the estimated 2,500 murals painted on public and private property throughout Los Angeles County.

Caltrans officials defend the agency’s graffiti cleanup policy. It provides the conservancy and mural artists 45 days after they are notified to clean graffiti-tagged murals before they are painted over. Caltrans provides no funding for the original murals or repairs but approves the permits and provides traffic control to allow artists to paint on freeway walls.

Still, Michael Miles, Caltrans’ deputy district director of maintenance for Los Angeles and Ventura counties, conceded that work crews may have painted over some murals due to a “breakdown in communications” with the conservancy.

Miles said he plans to meet with Dunitz’s group Friday to iron out the problem.

“We don’t want to see murals defaced and we want to give the artist every opportunity to clean it up,” Miles said.


Although Miles insisted that Caltrans has notified the conservancy by mail before painting over any mural, Dunitz said her group has received no notification.

Miles said his agency will send future notification by certified mail.

But mural artists say Caltrans should also provide funding to help defray the costs of removing graffiti, which include renting concrete barriers at nearly $5,000 a week to protect artists from traffic.

“There should be money for repainting these murals,” said artist Frank Romero, whose 21-year-old mural of brightly colored cars on the Hollywood Freeway was partly painted over by Caltrans crews last year. He said he was never notified by Caltrans or the conservancy. Romero is working to restore the painting.

Murals that have been partly or completely painted over are:

* Johanna Poethig’s “Stamps of Victory,” a soccer-themed mural of postage stamps from around the world on the Harbor Freeway near the 7th Street exit.

* Kent Twitchell’s “7th Street Altarpiece,” portraits of local artists on opposite sides of the Harbor Freeway at the 7th Street underpass.

* Romero’s “Going to the Olympics,” the car culture mural on the Hollywood Freeway near the Alameda Street exit.


* Alonzo Davis’ “Eye on ‘84,” a colorful series of panels on the Harbor Freeway at the 3rd Street onramp.

Los Angeles County’s 2,500 outdoor murals celebrate the region’s people, cultures, sports and love for the ocean and the environment. Many freeway artworks were commissioned by public agencies and private business and organizations for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and the 1994 World Cup soccer championship in Pasadena.

But Los Angeles is also home to some of the nation’s most prolific graffiti tagging crews, whose primary mission is to display their moniker on the most visible surface.

In the past, taggers usually refrained from tagging murals, as a sign of respect for the artists. But that has changed in the past year or two, as is evident by the proliferation of graffiti on freeway murals.

Graffiti taggers say a recent dispute between two crews of taggers on the Westside of Los Angeles may have triggered the upsurge.

Taggers are also learning that Caltrans removes graffiti on freeway walls and bridges within two weeks but waits 45 days before removing graffiti from a mural.


“All the taggers know that if you hit a mural it will stay up longer,” said Frank, a 25-year-old graffiti tagger who is from one of the warring crews but does not condone defacing murals. “I guess that is what it is all about: The longer you can keep your tag up, of course, the better.”

Frank and other taggers say the tagging war between crews from the Palms area of Los Angeles and Hollywood escalated recently when members of the Palms area crew threw a bucket of gray paint on a Melrose Avenue wall emblazed with the moniker of the rival crew.

But veteran taggers blame the vandalism of freeway murals on young taggers who don’t respect the work of mural artists.

“I know it takes time and effort to do that,” said a 26-year-old tagger who goes by the street name Fuey. “I’m not going to take a spray can and come over and spray it. That is so cheesy. It’s so rude.”

Judy Baca, a mural artist and founder of the Social and Public Art Resource Center in Venice, said she was recently notified by Caltrans that taggers hit her mural on the Harbor Freeway, titled “Hitting the Wall,” a tribute to women marathon runners in the Olympics.

Baca said this is not the first time she has been forced to clean the mural, using her own money, and she complained that she is running out of funds for the work.


Still, she is sympathetic to young taggers, who she said have no creative outlet for their energy. She criticizes Caltrans, saying the agency is best equipped to clean the murals while preserving the artistic images but has not set aside money to do so.

When Caltrans permits an artist to put a mural on a freeway wall, Koval said, Caltrans makes it clear that the artist is responsible to maintain the artwork.

But Baca said that without some support from the agency Los Angeles County may soon lose its title of mural capital of the world.

Romero agrees. “Millions and millions of dollars are spent on graffiti abatement,” he said, “And some should be used by the artists.”