Army engineers clean up graffiti along L.A. River

For as long as many can remember, the section of the Los Angeles River that runs east of downtown has been an open-air gallery for taggers. No more.

Members of the self-described “Metro Transit Assassins” used the river’s sloping banks for massive tags of their acronym that stretched for blocks and could be seen from passing aircraft. “Buket,” who gained notoriety for tagging the Hollywood Freeway overpass, put his black-bordered, mint-green moniker here at its biggest and boldest.

But in recent months, these tags and tens of thousands of others have begun to vanish beneath coats of grayish-white paint. And with the year drawing to a close, the river is almost as blank a canvas as when its concrete channel was built early in the last century.

The transformation has been so conspicuous that commuters heading south to Orange County have asked about the change, authorities say. Some wonder what happened to the color while others are pleased to see what they consider blight finally gone.

The whitewash is part of a program the Army Corps of Engineers began in September to cover or erase graffiti along 100 miles of the county’s sprawling flood-control system, which includes the downtown area as well as the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys and the southern end of the county.

Using $837,000 in federal stimulus money, the corps awarded a one-year contract to San Fernando-based BJD Resourcing to remove the tags in rivers, channels and creeks. In some areas, crews have used high-pressure water to spray off the toxic paint used in tagging. Hazardous-material crews would dam and capture all the paint and water runoff to keep it out of the riverbed. For the most part, however, the work is being done using waterway-safe paint, said Sgt. Maj. Jeffrey E. Koontz of the corps.

Motorized paint sprayers, -- using 63,000 gallons of paint in a typical day -- are the tool of choice. In three months, the corps has covered about 13 square miles of walls, banks and bridge abutments, equivalent to painting the entire city of Downey.

The effort to clean up the graffiti and keep it from coming back is “a battle,” said Koontz, “it’s a test of wills.”

And it is one in which the taggers have long held the upper hand.

Aided by easy access points to the river, poor lighting, lax law enforcement and readily accessible escape routes, generations of taggers have used the area as their personal canvases.

Cristian Gheorghiu, 33, a veteran tagger who goes by the name “Smear,” said the river was a paradise for tagging because of the solitude and the open real estate.

Most of those who ventured onto the riverbanks would work in the early morning or late at night under cover of darkness. Yet, it was rare to run into someone else, said Gheorghiu, now on probation for a tagging-related offense.

“It was a go zone, a big expanse where you can pick your spot and do your thing,” Gheorghiu said.

Now the atmosphere for taggers is far less welcoming, in part because of more aggressive enforcement by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department’s special problems unit, which investigates graffiti on Metropolitan Transportation Authority property.

Sheriff’s Lt. Erik Ruble said the transit-related vandalism cases invariably lead them back to the L.A. River bed.

“It’s an informational guide as to who is doing a lot of work and a lot of damage,” Ruble said. “We look at it as an avenue for accountability, like when they have to pay restitution. When we go down and see a tag, we write a crime report.”

In fact, it was a tag along the river near the 6th Street bridge that led authorities to arrest “Buket,” whose real name is Cyrus Yazdani. He was sentenced to nearly four years in state prison for violating probation after a conviction for a years-long tagging spree.

Even with the slate wiped clean, Koontz says, the corps will continue efforts to combat vandalism.

“We will have to be on it all the time,” Koontz said. “We are going to continue to do the right thing no matter what, and that’s going to take a lot of vigilance.” The contractors will continue to paint over tags for at least the next year.

But “Smear” and other taggers say the government is throwing away good money that could go to art education, and doing damage to the environment while inviting a new generation to display their skills on the now-empty concrete.

“If there’s anywhere in the city they should allow tagging,” Smear said, “it’s there.”