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Wiping the Slate Clean

February 20, 1986|FRANK J. BUCKLEY | Times Staff Writer

The off-white wall at the side of the house on Millbury Avenue in Bassett was splotched with the names of gangs and their members, as well as other erratically written messages and obscenities.

The painted-on scrawlings disgusted at least one neighbor, who decided to call the San Gabriel Valley Boys Club's graffiti hot line. That same day, Chris Ramirez, 22, arrived in a pickup truck with paints and rollers. Fifteen minutes later, the wall was painted clean.

At the same time, Boys Club officials had begun a related process they consider as important as ridding the area of eyesores.

They attempt to determine who might be involved by tracking names and nicknames scribbled among the graffiti and meeting with those responsible.

"What we really want is for them to stop doing it," said Clayton Hollopeter, 47, executive director of the San Gabriel Valley Boys Club.

Work of Gang Members

Artie Gonzalez, a gang member involved in another Boys Club program to assist troubled youth, was suspected of taking part in putting the graffiti on the wall because his parents live nearby. When a Boys Club official found him at their home, he admitted that he was partly responsible.

"The night we done this, we were partying," Gonzalez told Jack Gutowski, a Boys Club official. "Someone brought out a spray can and said, 'Hey, let's write on the wall.' "

For 14 years, the Boys Club has been cleaning up after those who have left their marks with spray cans and paint brushes. Hollopeter estimates that the club has removed "millions of square feet" of graffiti.

What was a public service during the Bicentennial has expanded into a money-making operation.

'Gift to the Country'

"It started as a public service," said Hollopeter. "Our national organization had an idea that we should do something for the Bicentennial. It was our gift to the country."

By 1979, the program had developed into a major source of funds for the local Boys Club, which operates a wide range of sports programs and youth services for an estimated 200 youths each week from its building in El Monte.

The cities of Alhambra, El Monte, South El Monte, San Dimas, West Covina and Hawaiian Gardens contract with the Boys Club for graffiti removal and are expected to pay the club $108,000 this year for its services. Los Angeles County will pay the club an additional $95,000 this year to clean up unincorporated areas within Supervisor Pete Schabarum's 1st District.

The money goes to pay the salaries of the six full-time workers and the expenses of the program, with some left over for other Boys Club activities.

People who live in any of the six cities or unincorporated areas can call the seven-day-a-week, 24-hour hot line at (818) 442-6666 to report graffiti on public andprivate property. A crew usually arrives that day or the next to clean it up at no charge.

Private Firm Competes

The Boys Club faces competition from at least one private firm.

Graffiti Removal of Monterey Park provides service for 13 cities in Los Angeles and Orange counties, including the San Gabriel Valley cities of Monterey Park, Montebello, Rosemead and La Verne, according to Tim Sullivan, 39, a partner in the firm.

Sullivan said his company employs seven full-time workers. He would not disclose how much money is received from the cities.

But he said the competition from the Boys Club doesn't bother him.

"We have plenty enough work," Sullivan said.

Graffiti removal is more than a business venture for the Boys Club, according to Hollopeter. He believes that quick elimination of graffiti may help reduce gang violence.

Ken Weldon, community relations supervisor for the El Monte Police Department, agreed. By painting over the graffiti before it can become an issue between gangs, violence might be averted, he said.

Rises With Gang Activity

Gang members use graffiti to instigate violence, he said. "As gang activity rises, so will graffiti."

Weldon said that violence most often occurs after a gang ventures into another's territory and scrawls its symbol or acronym as a challenge to the local gang. Nicknames are left behind to show who has visited.

"The rival gang will come and cross that off," Weldon said. "It's a put-down."

When gang graffiti is left on walls too long, it sometimes leads to fights, according to Gutowski, director of the Boys Club's Project Return, a program that helps juvenile offenders readjust to society after they are released from probation camps.

Gonzalez, a 19-year-old member of the Bassett Chico street gang, has taken part in Project Return.

Gonzalez has served time in county probation camps for auto theft and narcotics convictions, and knows firsthand about the connection between graffiti and violence.

"One time, I went over to Puente (gang territory in Puente Hills)--the heart of their neighborhood," Gonzalez said. "They had writing on their wall. I was drunk and I started crossing them out and they seen me and I heard a bullet come by me."

Friend Not So Lucky

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