A casualty in the graffiti wars
In today’s installment of Read It and Weep: Your Tax Dollars at Work, we visit a besieged Highland Park mom-and-pop grocery store owned by the Antonio family.
The Antonios can only guess at the number of times they’ve begun their day with a can of paint brushing over fresh graffiti left on the side of their store by taggers.
“Maybe 70 times,” said Jacob Antonio Jr., 27.
His father, Jacob, begged to differ.
“More than 100 times,” he said with exasperation.
Early this year, the Antonios began to notice that some stores and commercial buildings in the neighborhood weren’t being tagged, and they tended to be the ones with murals. After some investigating, they learned that if you hired the right muralist, the taggers would respect the work and not mess with the mural.
So they shelled out $3,000 to hire a team that included a guy known as Playboy Eddie and Israel “Ezra” Cervantes, who had previously done a mural on a little grocery store on York Boulevard. In no time at all, Los Paisanos market had a praying Virgin Mother on a front corner along with “Jesus Saves.”
On the side of the bright yellow building was a colorful but edgier painting that looked like a two-headed serpent slithering through a junk yard. Just above that was a more traditional rural scene, with a couple of paisanos in sombreros.
All in all, it wasn’t quite the mural the Antonios had in mind, and they weren’t sure what the snakes represented. But after years of torment, they were in a compromising mood.
“My father was like, ‘You know what, just let them do what they want, if that’s gonna get the kids to stop tagging. I’d rather look at that than look at graffiti.’ ”
Father knew best.
To the relief of the entire Antonio family, the taggers didn’t come near the mural. But three months into the respite, an even more menacing monster reared its ugly head.
City Hall bureaucracy.
“ORDER TO COMPLY,” said the letter from the Building and Safety Department, which required the Antonios to remove “excessive signage” under threat of a $1,000 fine “and/or six (6) months imprisonment” for each of four alleged violations.
The Antonios called the office of Councilman Ed Reyes for help, but to little avail. One day the city sent out a work crew and just like that, the Antonios’ $3,000 investment was gone, covered over with dull beige paint.
You know, of course, what happened next. Whitewashing that wall was like sending ants an invitation to a picnic. The taggers have been back almost daily, treating the wall like a fresh canvas.
Nice work, City Hall!
On some mornings, the Antonios were back out there with a brush, covering up the graffiti, which in Los Angeles can be like taking your own life into your hands. On other mornings, the city would send a crew that has a $500,000 annual contract to remove graffiti, one of more than a dozen anti-graffiti contracts for which the city pays $7 million a year.
And color coordination is not a strength of the crew that visits Los Paisanos. The store now looks like a yellow canary with beige bandages all over its body.
Monday afternoon, I saw two fresh tags on the wall -- probably from the Avenues gangs, the Antonios said.
“There’ll be more by morning,” said Anthony Antonio, and he was dead-on.
Taggers got the side of the building and the front too. When I arrived just after 9 on Tuesday morning, the anti-graffiti contractor had just left, and his beige paint was still wet. Mrs. Antonio, Maria Elena, was gesturing and wondering when the war will ever end.
“We should apologize to them,” said Tony Perez, a spokesman for Councilman Reyes.
Perez said the city should have helped the Antonios appeal the order to remove the mural. Meanwhile, Reyes’ office is trying to negotiate a change in city law so murals would be distinguished from advertising such as billboards, making approvals easier.
And why, ask the Antonios, has the city cracked down on them even though murals by the same artists on other stores are left alone? Because a Highland Park resident complained, said Perez, who told me that the city looks the other way unless someone protests.
Selective enforcement, in other words. Nice way to do business.
The culprit in this case was a woman who lives near Los Paisanos and is with the Historic Highland Park Neighborhood Council. She told me she’s not against murals but said this one was “gang-looking” and “it made me nervous walking by there.”
That assessment was shared by Paul Racs, director of the city Office of Community Beautification, the agency that hires graffiti-removal crews. “There’s obviously some talent there, but that’s just graffiti,” he said after I sent him pictures of the vanquished mural.
But others in the area disagree. I spoke to four neighbors who said that while they weren’t in love with the mural, they definitely preferred it to fresh nightly tagging by neighborhood tough guys. The woman who called Reyes to complain said she would prefer to have neither an edgy mural nor nightly tagging. Sure, but how will that happen without a nightly vigil by police?
I think I may have an answer, and it comes from none other than the muralist.
Ezra Cervantes said he respects those who saw the mural as too edgy. It was a spontaneous improvisational effort, he said, likening it to jazz. But if neighbors and the store owners would like something “a little more conservative,” with perhaps a larger Virgin Mary, Cervantes offered to assemble his crew and redo the mural for only the cost of the paint, an estimated $500.
Would taggers have a field day if the mural was a panoply of doves and virgins rather than snakes and sinners? No, said Cervantes. He and Playboy Eddie have got street cred, so whatever they paint should be respected.
Here’s my proposal:
If Reyes’ office can clear the way for a variance and keep the bureaucrats off the backs of the Antonio family, and Cervantes can come up with a mural the neighbors like -- including the woman who first complained -- I’ll pester City Hall to find a way to cover the cost of the paint.
If they’ve got $7 million for graffiti removal, surely they can find $500 to pump up the Virgin Mary and make the Antonio family whole.