Standing before a collage of street gang symbols and other graffiti scrawled on a wall behind a Culver City shopping center, Tim Sullivan triggered his high-speed spray painter and covered the zigzag forms in seconds with a single coat of blue paint.
It was a typical job for Sullivan and his Montebello-based Graffiti Removal Co., which searches out and eradicates graffiti in Culver City, West Hollywood and 11 other Los Angeles-area cities.
"The majority of the stuff is gang-related," said Sullivan, 39, who has been in the business 10 years. "But more and more we're beginning to see writings involving different rock (music) groups and New York-style graffiti, with multicolored drawings. Satanic graffiti is also starting to show up more and more through the different cities we work in."
Graffiti Removal has been taking the writing off the wall in Culver City since 1984, when it signed three separate contracts to obliterate graffiti from private property, Redevelopment Agency parcels and other public property in the city.
Last year, Culver City paid the company about $20,000 to eliminate more than 500 instances of graffiti in alleys, public restrooms and elsewhere.
City officials hired the company when their own efforts proved too slow and the graffiti began to add up.
"What we had before was a sort of non-program, where if anybody spotted graffiti, Municipal Services sent out crews and got permission to remove it," said Phyllis Baboolal, city housing manager. "But they had their own duties. The result was very sporadic. Now, we can respond on a more immediate basis."
Graffiti Removal receives reports from city police, code inspectors and its employees. The company is required to eliminate any graffiti within a week of its being reported.
Company crews check out the graffiti and estimate the charges for painting it over or scrubbing it off. After a job is inspected and approved by the city, the company must obtain written permission from a property owner before starting work. The city is billed $36 to $250 for each job.
When it paints over graffiti, the company peels off a sample of existing paint and takes it to the Graffiti Removal lab where the color is matched to one of thousands of color cards. The company can mix up to 48 colors to arrive at the proper shade.
Sullivan said the process can take a few days, but that the company will respond within 24 hours if the city wants particularly offensive language removed. In an emergency, Sullivan said his employees take about a dozen different colors and concoct a matching shade on the spot. They return with a better shade if the city wishes, he said.
Cleaning solvents are used to remove graffiti on basins and mirrors in city parks, he said. Most of Culver City's graffiti, however, is confined to alleys between commercial centers and residential areas, "not out in front where they may get caught," Sullivan said.
Gary Audet, director of municipal services, said that his department sends Graffiti Removal on about six or seven assignments a week that include public restrooms, traffic signal control boxes and bus benches.
Audet said that graffiti is an ongoing problem and the best way to control it is to eliminate it quickly, lest one case encourage others to add to what is there. So far, the city is satisfied its anti-graffiti consultant has the problem under control.
"I'm happy with their talent of matching the paint and their responsiveness," he said. "We've been making progress."