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SAN GABRIEL VALLEY COVER STORY : Stemming the Tide of Graffiti : Taggers seem to steer clear of walls painted with vines, leaves and other foliage. It's a quickly blooming strategy in the war against the spray-painters.

July 07, 1994|VICKI TORRES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

They adorn miles and miles of walls along the streets of La Puente, Bassett and neighboring areas: simple and often primitive-looking painted green leaves on swirling brown vines.

Invariably, those unacquainted with the anti-graffiti tactic scoff at first hearing the idea. Oh sure, painted vines will stop taggers who routinely jump fences, scale heights, cross barbed wire, wriggle through bushes and ignore barking dogs to spray-paint monikers on seemingly inaccessible walls.

But for some unknown reason, the vines work. It's a mystery even to those who have spent years stamping a paint-laden, vine-shaped sponge onto fresh coats of Navajo white.

Just ask the vine ladies of La Puente: two women who began painting the vines 15 years ago and two others who now want to start nonprofit anti-graffiti corporations using the idea.

"I honestly don't know why it works," said Loretta Chase, who lives in unincorporated La Puente and estimates she has painted 10 miles of the vines in the past three years.

But the idea is spreading.

The vines sprouted on walls in East Los Angeles last year thanks to the Maravilla Foundation, a nonprofit neighborhood cleanup agency that took its painting lessons from La Puente. Chase painted the faux vines on the parking lot walls at the Hollywood Bowl and the John Anson Ford Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, at their request. And Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina has adopted La Puente's painted greens as part of the anti-graffiti effort that her office occasionally supervises in her district.

"That's our M.O. now; we don't just do (plain) paint-overs," said Molina's press deputy, Robert Alaniz. "Once they paint vines and leaves on a wall, you don't see any more graffiti."

Some say the vines keep off graffiti because a spray-painted name gets visually lost amid the tangle of ersatz leaves and stems.

Others say most of the vines are tended by vigilant touch-up crews who simply add a green leaf or two to cover up stray graffiti.

Still others suggest that community pride is the secret, with taggers driven away by the outpouring of neighborhood cooperation.

Typically, most of the vine-painting efforts include paint donated by nonprofit agencies or neighborhood stores. With community activists, local politicians and schools handling the organizing chores, crews of children, parents and even taggers themselves put up the vines in a Saturday afternoon of Tom Sawyer-like painting enthusiasm. Neighbors honk and wave, provide free drinks and food and even drop whatever they're doing to lend a hand, painters report.

What tagger would dare incur the wrath of an entire neighborhood once the walls are finished, asks William Gonzalez, a manager with the Maravilla Foundation. The nonprofit anti-graffiti and neighborhood cleanup agency in East Los Angeles has covered walls with Navajo white in the past year for various vine-painting projects in East Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley, Gonzalez said.

"A lot of the kids tell their older brothers, 'Don't mess with the wall because we did it,' " he added. "I was a skeptic myself, but it works."

But why vines?

The idea sprang from energetic Jo Ann Sanchez, a 55-year-old North Whittier homemaker who in the summer of 1978 was searching for a project for her newly established Avocado Heights Women's Club, a group that included residents from La Puente, Bassett, North Whittier and Hacienda Heights. The women decided to beautify the graffiti-blighted block walls along Workman Mill Road in Bassett.

"It was my idea to plant creeping fig vines, the kind used on freeways," said Sanchez, a former model and manicurist who sports personalized license plates reading "2 HUNEY," a variation on her nickname, Honey. "We figured if we covered the walls in green it would be beautiful and they wouldn't write on them."

The group got permission from the 69 homeowners whose block walls bordered the then-rural thoroughfare. Sanchez and her women's club members dug holes, stuck the baby vines in the dirt and waited. But the plants withered under homeowner neglect and abuse from bicycle-riding children.

Undaunted, Sanchez latched onto an idea borrowed from a neighbor who had seen painted vines in Newport Beach. Why not here? she thought. So, the women's club members armed themselves with 25 gallons of paint and marched out to the block walls to try their artistic hands on a half-mile stretch. Twirling a four-inch-wide roller brush to create leaves took some skill, and the results were mixed, Sanchez said.

"Some of (the walls) were beautiful and some were horrible. I mean, real eyesores," she said.

Still, the vines were a unique improvement over the graffiti, and the project garnered some small press coverage, she said. Then, the club broke up, the vines faded over time, more houses sprang up along Workman Mill Road and graffiti took over again.

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