Colette Phipps is something of a con artist. She tricks unsuspecting children into hating graffiti.
Playing on their vivid imaginations, Phipps visits Inglewood's elementary and junior high school campuses and asks students to draw the home of their dreams. The students respond with enthusiasm, drawing detailed sketches of columned mansions and palatial beach homes.
Then, when the masterpieces are completed, she walks through the classroom and scrawls cryptic markings all over them.
"Now you know how homeowners feel when you spray graffiti all over their property," she said the other day as she scribbled on a student's drawing at Albert Monroe Junior High School.
"Doesn't feel too good does it?" she asked another student, whose mouth hung open in disbelief. When Phipps asked who likes graffiti at the end of the exercise, not a single hand went up.
"This is sort of an unconventional approach to graffiti prevention, but it works," said Phipps, director of Inglewood's aggressive anti-graffiti program.
"We're not afraid to experiment with new ideas because we are very serious about getting rid of graffiti in this city."
Inglewood spends $132,000 a year on graffiti abatement--more than any other South Bay city, according to a survey of local governments. The program provides free paint for merchants and homeowners whose property is vandalized, and maintenance crews to paint over or sandblast graffiti on public property.
Mayor Edward Vincent has pledged to pay $100 of his own money to residents who provide tips that lead to the conviction of graffiti vandals, though no money has been distributed in the three years the rewards have been available.
"There are not many cities in California that put the kind of effort Inglewood does into getting rid of graffiti," said City Manager Paul Eckles.
But until this year, the effort focused largely on removal, not prevention, Eckles said. Officials grew tired of spending money on programs that removed graffiti one day only to find it reappear the next, and are now trying to eliminate the spray-painted messages by discouraging young people from writing them in the first place.
"We are never going to get rid of graffiti with a paint brush," said City Councilman Virgle Benson. "I have been seeing graffiti all my life and people have been trying to get rid of it as long as I can remember. The only way to get rid of graffiti is to get kids to stop writing it. And the way to do that is to focus on the schools."
At Phipps' urging, the city now funnels about a third of its anti-graffiti budget into educational programs, which include essay-writing contests, lectures and a summer job program in which Inglewood students are paid to remove the spray-painted messages. The six winners in a recent essay contest were given as much as $75 each in a City Hall awards ceremony last week.
Phipps, a Bronx native, grew up with graffiti herself. "I come from an area where graffiti is everywhere and I know how you get sort of desensitized to it," Phipps said. "Graffiti is just a way of life for these kids. It's the way a lot of them express themselves."
Almost all of the graffiti in Inglewood is gang-related, officials said. "It's how gangs designate their turf and show their influence," said Gladys Evans, principal at Monroe Junior High.
"Most of the gang wars in this city start with the writing on the wall. If one gang crosses out another gang's graffiti it will likely lead to a fight. It's like that has replaced saying 'your momma' as the sure-fire way to start a fight," Evans said.
"When gang members write graffiti, the last thing they think about is that they may be ruining someone's property."
Think Before Spraying
Phipps hopes she can change that and make students "think about their actions before they start spraying paint."
The so-called "homeowner exercise" is the most effective tool she has found to do that, she said.
"It's the best way I know of to make these young children realize that graffiti is ruining their homes and neighborhoods," said Phipps, who conducts the exercise at several Inglewood schools.
Before students draw their dream homes, Phipps explains the sacrifices the students may have to make to come up with a $15,000 down payment. "Ladies, you won't be able to get your hair done every week and go shopping at May Co. or the Broadway," she tells a group of giggly young girls, who fall silent at the possibility.
"And fellas," she says to another fidgety group, "you're going to have to cut out dating because the only place you can afford to take your date is to Jack-in-the-Box."
The idea, she said, is to make the
students "realize that they have to sacrifice to buy a house . . . they get pretty doggone mad when someone writes on their building."