PASADENA — In the two years that Sung Park has owned a market at El Molino Street and Washington Boulevard, he has tried just about everything to get rid of the patchwork of graffiti that has covered his parking lot wall.
First, he tried painting over the obscenities, gang logos and illegible scrawls--four times in one year, and all to no avail.
Then he let a group of students paint a wild, king-sized graffito of their girlfriends' names on a wall, hoping that would discourage others from breaking out their spray cans. Unfortunately, the students ran out of paint, leaving the wall half finished.
In his latest effort, Park recently had his walls completely repainted by the city under an anti-graffiti program that began last month.
"A miracle," he said staring at the still unblemished wall.
Park doubts that the wall will stay clean for long, but he is pleased that he has finally found an ally in his frustrating back-and-forth battle against graffiti.
For the last three weeks, a city crew has been looking for graffiti in northwest Pasadena and removing it free of charge.
Armed with a start-up budget of $20,000 from the city and the promise of $8,000 more from community groups, the city has already set up a hot line residents can call to have graffiti removed and has hired a full-time supervisor to lead the cleanup effort.
"We're committed to wiping this stuff out," said Bruce Philpott, special assistant to the city manager. "No matter how many times someone writes on a wall, we're going to come in right after them."
The main focus of the program is northwest Pasadena, where the graffiti problem has overwhelmed many neighborhoods, frustrating residents' efforts to fight it.
"It's just too much for normal people to do to sit and watch a wall all day," said resident Dave Williams. "You can't play games with them forever."
List of 335 Locations
Magdelano Muro, who supervises the program, already has compiled a list of 335 spots in the northwest area to paint over. At his current pace, he figures it will take two or three months to go through the list.
Muro will respond to any complaint about graffiti from residents, who can leave a message on the graffiti hot line.
After getting permission from the property owner, Muro will head out, armed with the five most common wall colors--gray, brown and three shades of white. The crew also will use any paint the property owner wants to supply.
"It doesn't matter how many times they call," he said. "We'll just go back and paint."
Painting crews eventually will be made up of people convicted of traffic offenses or minor misdemeanors who will be referred to the program by the courts.
After cleaning up the northwest area, Muro, who is temporarily working on his own, will begin branching out into the rest of the city.
Philpott said the city may never completely rid itself of graffiti, but the program will help bring the problem under control.
"It's like painting the Bay Bridge: You spend years painting it and when you finish, you have to start all over again," he said, referring to the 4.5-mile span of bridge that crosses San Francisco Bay.
Part of Urban Life
Keeping graffiti permanently off buildings will be no easy chore, Philpott said, especially because it has become such an ingrained part of urban life.
Cesar Hernandez, an 18-year-old Pasadena High School student who is a member of a local group that prides itself on its graffiti art, said that most graffiti in the city comes from the various gangs, youth groups and individuals who use it to mark turf or gain recognition.
Names like "Slam Two," "ESP" and "Ski" are ubiquitous, in part because it is so easy to leave a "tag." A quick flick of a marking pen or spray can and the job is done.
Another graffiti writer, Dave Williams (no relation to the homeowner of the same name), pulled out a marking pen and said, "It's like an American Express card--don't leave home without it."
Pasadena Police Sgt. Frank Wills, head of the department's community relations unit, said most graffiti writers, especially gang members, do not view what they do as vandalism.
'No Guilt Involved'
"They don't see it as ugly or disgusting or whatever. It's a mark of pride in their community." he said. "Certainly, there's no guilt involved."
There are two state laws, each carrying a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, making it illegal to carry a can of spray paint in plain view or to sell a juvenile anything larger than a six-ounce can of spray paint.
But neither the laws nor the crews that set out to paint out graffiti get at the reasons people paint on walls, said Clay Hollopeter, executive director of the San Gabriel Valley Boys Club.
Hollopeter has been involved with graffiti removal for 12 years as head of an anti-graffiti program that covers Alhambra, El Monte, South El Monte, San Dimas, West Covina and all the unincorporated county areas in the 1st Supervisorial District.