Taggers behind giant L.A. River graffiti settle with city

Former members of the Metro Transit Assassins tagging crew will not have to pay the city of Los Angeles millions of dollars for graffiti cleanup, but a few could be subject to the same restrictions placed on gang members under an agreement reached with the city attorney.

The settlements, announced Wednesday, resolve a landmark lawsuit filed by City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, who sought to treat taggers as gang members by restricting their behavior through an injunction.

The lawsuit against 11 alleged members of the crew was filed in June 2010 in response to a quarter-mile-long “graffiti bomb” of the taggers’ acronym along the Los Angeles River. The lawsuit sought $1.2 million in penalties and $3.7 million in damages for 500 incidents of graffiti vandalism.

Attorneys from the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California challenged the proposed injunction on 1st Amendment grounds, but a judge found that the constitution “does not protect destruction of public or private property by graffiti vandalism, trespass and illegal activities.”

Under the deals, the city and defendants agreed to an injunction that prohibits crew members from associating with each other in public, possessing graffiti tools, and staying out past 10 p.m.

However, the city agreed not to enforce the injunction against eight of the defendants as long as they refrain from any “graffiti vandalism” and complete certain requirements, said Assistant City Atty. Anne Tremblay. The cases will be dismissed when the defendants pay outstanding fines, perform 100 hours of graffiti removal and five years pass without a graffiti conviction.

Cases have already been dismissed against three of them, including Cristian Gheorghiu, a.k.a. Smear, Tremblay said.

“I feel like I just woke up from a nightmare,” Gheorghiu said. “I can go forward now without all that twisted, perverse baggage.” He said he never participated in the giant MTA tag and has spent the last several years concentrating on gallery art, including for a fall show at Azusa Pacific University.

Two other defendants did not contest the allegations, and a default judgment was entered on their behalf, officials said. The 11th defendant was deported.

Peter Bibring, an ACLU attorney who represented Gheorghiu, said that because the tagging crew did not defend itself against the injunction as an organization, the city can now seek similar action against other members.

“We must use all available legal tools to stop this vandalism, which taggers refer to as ‘wrecking,’” Trutanich said in announcing the settlement.

The MTA “bomb,” which prompted the lawsuit, was removed as part of a $1.3-million graffiti-abatement program by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. One of the largest tags in the United States, its letters covered a three-story-high wall and ran between the 4th Street and 1st Street bridges.