Trying to paint taggers into a corner

Times Staff Writer

Responding to a surge in graffiti, L.A. County prosecutors, Caltrans and the CHP are teaming up to target what officials say has become the prime canvas for taggers: freeways.

Prosecutors have lowered the amount of monetary damages that must be committed by a tagger to warrant felony charges, saying the change will make it easier to prosecute vandals.

At the same time, the California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles Police Department are staking out freeways frequented by taggers, hoping to catch them in the act.


The moves come as Southland cities are seeing a marked increase in graffiti, which some believe is tied to an uptick in gang crime.

Caltrans alone painted over 3 million square feet of graffiti last year -- with areas on the 101 Freeway in downtown, the 110 in South L.A., the 10 though the Westside and the 710 through Southeast L.A. being among the hardest hit.

LAPD Cmdr. Louis Gray said he is particularly dismayed by the continuing defacement at the junction of the 101 and 5 freeways at the eastern gateway to downtown.

“It’s kind of important for the image the city of L.A. wants to put out there for people coming and going on the freeway,” he said.

The stakeouts have shown early signs of being effective, in large part because taggers tend to return to the same high-profile locations so that their vandalism is seen by the maximum number of people.

Caltrans officials say some prime locations are tagged just days after crews paint over graffiti.


Two L.A.-area taggers using the monikers “Wishm” and “Meek” were arrested during a sting last month in the downtown area.

Authorities allege that over the last four years, the man and woman vandalized downtown freeways and murals and left their names on graffiti in San Francisco and San Bernardino County. They were arrested in San Bernardino, but L.A. authorities filed the charges. They each face 14 felony counts of graffiti vandalism.

Freeway vandalism has been an issue across Southern California for nearly two decades. During the early 1990s, it reached a zenith, with tagger crews staging “wars” to see how quickly they could mark up freeways.

Caltrans responded by placing razor wire around freeway signs. It reduced tagging but prompted criticism over the aesthetics.

More recently, the razor wire was replaced by more than 1,000 “vandal baffles,” green metal frames around the signs that make them harder to tag.

Still, many signs remain a favorite target. Earlier this year, one sign on the Hollywood Freeway was fully covered by graffiti for weeks.


As local governments build more freeway sound walls, they become favorite targets as well. When sound walls were built along the 60 Freeway in East L.A. a few years ago, vandals repeatedly hit them during construction.

Los Angeles cleanup crews removed 27 million square feet of graffiti last year, up from 21 million square feet in 2005, officials said. In other areas of Los Angeles County, 13 million square feet of walls and other surfaces were cleaned, 4 million more than in the previous year, according to county public works records.

Hoping a graffiti crackdown might also help reduce other types of crimes, prosecutors are stepping up enforcement, said Janet Moore, director of central operations for the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

The office has lowered the threshold of monetary damage needed to file felony graffiti charges. Previously, police officers had received conflicting information as to what level constituted a misdemeanor versus a felony.

Until recently, the felony limit was $2,500, and anything under that amount was considered a misdemeanor, Moore said. Now, damage of $1,000 or more is a felony, and anything under $400 is a misdemeanor.

Damage that falls in between could go either way.

The D.A.’s office also is trying to provide better guidelines for police officers to determine the value of property damaged by graffiti, by taking into consideration factors such as the materials used and what item has been damaged. For example, the side of a building would have a higher value than a light pole.


The D.A.’s office also is looking at new legislation that would allow individuals to be prosecuted based on the aggregate damage they have done, Moore said.

“Let’s say a tagger hits 10 different houses and does $300 damage for each house,” she said. “That becomes 10 separate misdemeanor counts. But under the new rules, it would become a felony violation.”

In the future, graffiti vandals might also be charged with conspiracy if it can be proved that two or more conspired to commit the vandalism.

“We realize there might be new and different ways to attack the problems,” Moore said. “We have to improve the level of investigation by answering the questions: Who did it? When? And why?”

It remains unclear, however, whether increased enforcement will deter taggers. During the mid-1990s, a major crackdown by local authorities made a dent for a while, but the graffiti picked up again.

Authorities point out that taggers -- most of whom are in their teens -- like to take risks. Several taggers have been severely injured when they fell 50 feet or more from bridges and signs.


A single tagger can do much damage. Last year, one tagger scrawled “K.N.D.” -- for Kings Never Die -- repeatedly on the 22 Freeway in Orange County.

In some places, his insignia was 5 feet tall and 100 feet long -- and officials spent $40,000 a month cleaning it up before he was caught.

He pleaded guilty in October to felony vandalism. He was given six months in jail and ordered to pay more than $30,000 in restitution.



Graffiti Q&A;

How long has graffiti been a problem on freeways?

In L.A., graffiti has been a headache for decades. But tagging appeared to reach some sort of zenith in the early 1990s. Back then, authorities tried to catch “tagging crews” who would deface whole stretches of freeway in a night as well as hit buses.

What can officials do?

In the mid-1990s, Caltrans installed barrier frames designed to make it harder for taggers to get to the large green freeway signs. The barriers helped, but daredevils continued to deface the signs. Officials have tried to immediately paint over tags, but in many cases the tags quickly return. For some time, detectives have tried sting operations and undercover work to catch taggers in the act.


How about sound walls?

As more freeway sound walls are built, they are becoming easy targets for taggers. Walls along the 60 Freeway in East L.A. and the 10 Freeway through the Westside and Mid-City are hit often. Rail bridges over freeways often seem hardest hit because Caltrans doesn’t have the authority to remove graffiti there and the owners -- in some case rail companies -- are slower to act.

Is tagging dangerous?

It can be, especially for those who climb onto overpasses and signposts. Several taggers have died or suffered severe injuries falling from heights of 50 feet or more.

Don’t some people consider tagging an art form?

Yes, and some taggers have gone on to successful graphic art careers. The old Red Car subway tunnel just west of downtown emerged as a gallery for graffiti, with artists, tourists and others coming to see the scrawls. There was an effort to give the tunnel historic landmark status in 2004. But the city refused to preserve the graffiti-covered walls.


Los Angeles Times