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Signing Off : Stiffer penalties, enhanced police activity and rewards have cut neighborhood graffiti. The fad is fading, officials say.

August 25, 1994|EMILY ADAMS

For the past decade, residents of southeast Los Angeles County have viewed the writing on their walls with increasing alarm. As graffiti crept in, entire neighborhoods were marked with the stamp of urban blight and it seemed no area was safe from the spiky calligraphy of taggers.

Tolerance ran out. Taggers were denounced, and laws were passed to keep spray paint out of teen-age hands and to force parents to pay for their children's vandalism. Police officers were assigned to tagger investigation units, residents organized volunteer cleaning crews and cities invested thousands of dollars in cover-up paint. Some cities also offered rewards for information leading to the conviction of taggers. And convicted taggers began to pay a stiff price in court for their work.

Now, the news from the graffiti front may be better than expected. Aggressive anti-tagging efforts seem to be paying off.

In Long Beach, police officers estimate that tagging incidents are down by 90%. Graffiti paint-out crews are spending more time blending paint to fit the original wall color, less time slapping paint over fresh "tags." In Norwalk, a special surveillance trailer, previously used to catch taggers in the act, has been sitting idle for six months, city officials said, because there are no problem areas to stake out.

Officials also say there hasn't been a big jump in graffiti incidents this summer, when school vacations and idle hands in the past combined to create havoc with fresh paint.

"It's just a fad, like break-dancing a few years ago, and it's definitely on its way out," said Alvin Bernstein, a Long Beach probation officer. "We can see the signs everywhere."

In two middle schools, where Bernstein has offices during the school year as part of a gang-prevention program, fewer notebooks bear graffiti-style doodles, he said. There are fewer young taggers, Bernstein said.

Overall, police and city workers say, they are seeing cleaner walls and fewer organized tagging crews than they did about three years ago, when most believe the fad peaked.

Of course, this doesn't mean the taggers have gone away. In one notorious incident recently, two competing crews covered seven miles of the Long Beach Freeway in both directions with paint, resulting in about $100,000 damage. So far, six adults and 10 juveniles have been arrested in connection with the spree.

Incidents like this keep the costs of fighting graffiti high, authorities say. The city of Long Beach, struggling through a lingering recession, spends about $1 million every year on a graffiti-abatement program that involves several departments, including police. That price tag has remained consistent for the past three years, said John Hough, special projects officer with the Public Service Bureau.

Even tiny La Habra Heights, which doesn't have a single store or teen hangout within its city limits, spends $1,000 every year to paint over graffiti, mainly on street signs.

Homeowners and business people say there's another cost--a decline in property values in areas coated with graffiti.

Many cities have assigned employees solely to clean up after teen tagging rivalries, and those salaries are generally dwarfed by the cost of paint and materials to cover up the tags. Even after a paint-out, buildings, alleys and schools can look as though they've suffered a bad case of blemishes. Paint colors don't always match, multiple layers of paint begin to peel and a sense of urban blight sets in.

To combat this pox upon their houses, cities passed laws and funded programs to discourage taggers. Some offer hefty rewards for information that leads to the conviction of taggers. Many cities dictate that stores lock up spray paint, wide-tipped markers and glass-etching tools to keep them out of customers' reach. The state also provided another weapon, a law prohibiting minors from possessing aerosol paint cans.

In Norwalk, the impact of the city's anti-graffiti effort is most evident along the narrow one-way streets and old houses in the southwest part of town.

"It used to be that no sooner would you take graffiti off in the one-ways than it would be right back up," said Kevin Gano, public safety director. "Now we don't even see one-third the graffiti we used to."

Gano says several programs, initiated by his city within the past four years, are responsible for the cleaner walls. The city offers free paint to residents to cover up graffiti, and responds within 24 hours to businesses requesting graffiti removal.

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Norwalk officials also set up a surveillance team to stake out areas hard hit by graffiti. This Tagging Enforcement Suppression Team, known as TEST, consisted of sheriff's deputies, probation officers, city workers and community volunteers who shared stakeout duties in a mobile trailer and waited for taggers to show up. In the past year, the trailer was deployed six times. The surveillance resulted in the arrest of about 20 taggers who were photographed or observed in the act, Gano said.

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