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Call of the Wild : In the Upscale Suburbs, a Teen Fascination With Gang Life Creates Fears, Challenges for Adults

June 25, 1989|BOB SIPCHEN | Times Staff Writer

Gangsta! Gangsta! That's what they're yelling It ain't about a salary It's all about reality. --Lyrics by the rap group, N.W.A

They were bombing the back wall of an apartment house, out by the train tracks in Van Nuys. One youth, Skill, thought Krush had just "dis-ed" one of his characters.

"We battle right now," he said. The two young men chose their weapons and went at it. Their crews gathered around.

John Ky (not his real name) recalled the scene with relish.

Cans of Spray Paint

Krush "had more wild style." He painted a "fresher" graffiti piece on the wall with the cans of blue and baby blue spray paint he wielded.

So Krush won the battle, Ky said, holding up a snapshot of the four-color "piece" added to a wall already decorated in a wild tangle of strange caricatures and "tags"--the jagged, stylized pseudonyms that identify graffiti writers.

A 17-year-old Agoura High senior and first-generation Vietnamese immigrant, Ky first saw "graffiti art" along the Hollywood Freeway. Krush, a member of the KSN (Keeping Suckers Nervous) crew encouraged him and taught him some of the etiquette--you don't "dis" (paint over) a well-done tag or piece, for instance.

Together they went "bombing" in Los Angeles and Van Nuys.

But Ky lives with his parents, both well-paid professionals, in Westlake Village north of Los Angeles. Before long, he was looking for walls closer to home.

About the same time, other suburban kids had the same idea, accompanying their new-found enthusiasm for spray paint with the patois and attire of inner-city gangs.

But the distinctions they claim exist between themselves and the hard-core gangsters they seem to emulate were lost on most adults. Almost before the adolescents got started, they found out that there are reasons why the walls in affluent bedroom communities tend to be cleaner than those in impoverished ghettos.

In Los Angeles, where so many of the folks in the northern county work, graffiti screams a jarring greeting and farewell each weekday, reminding commuters why they spend two hours or more a day on the 101 Freeway.

To many of these people, a hastily scrawled acronym along the Harbor Freeway says "2,700 gang-related homicides in the past 10 years!" A blue X through a name on a Wilshire doughnut shop speaks of 3-year-old girls torn apart in automatic rifle cross fire.

Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies John Cater and Gary Spencer noticed the tagging almost immediately after it hit the walls in Agoura Hills and Westlake Village, two upper-middle-class suburbs of cookie-cutter landscaping and uniformly beige, two-story tiled-roof homes.

The community noticed, too, and responded with a collective shudder.

Two Young Deputies

The Sheriff's Department had assigned the two young deputies to a "problem-oriented" patrol, working with juveniles in the bedroom communities spreading across the rolling hills from Malibu up to the Ventura County border. So when local residents called to complain that the Bloods or Crips had moved in to take over their pristine parks, Spencer and Cater were responsible for investigating.

Spencer, 35, had spent his early career as a campus policeman and investigator with Los Angeles Unified School District. He once took a dying declaration from a 15-year-old whose face had been the target of a young gangster's point-blank shotgun blast.

Cater, 27, worked with the Sheriff's Department in Carson, patrolling areas terrorized by gangs.

Both know the signs of hard-core gang activity when they see it. Clearly, the tagging on these suburban walls wasn't it.

Still, it made the deputies uneasy.

In the past year or so, young people who would seem to be at no risk of becoming gang members have begun to imitate gang behavior. Their inspiration comes in part, youth workers say, from the movie "Colors," with its graphic depiction of inner-city gang life. Another factor, they say, is the growing popularity of rap music.

Suddenly, suburban kids who wouldn't know crack from Camembert are slamming Run DMC and Public Enemy tapes into boom-boxes and letting the audio ambiance of the inner city wash over their middle-class souls.

One of the hottest current rap groups in the 'burbs as well as Watts is N.W.A, whose "Straight Outta Compton" album is an unflinchingly violent and obscene reflection of gangsterism and ghetto life.

Generations that grew up on Sinatra or Simon and Garfunkel may have a hard time relating to the lyrics that accompany the group ' s well-produced mix of bone-thumping bass and percussive automatic weapons fire. In one song, for instance, a young black rapper boasts that he is:

on the warpath,

and when I finish

it's gonna be a blood bath

of cops,

dying in L.A.

But the album has sold almost 1 million copies and is on record stores' Top 40 shelves in the still-safe suburbs, where the relative anarchy of the ghetto apparently has growing appeal.

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