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FRIDAY REPORT: An in-depth look at people and policies
shaping Los Angeles County

There's No Ending Graffiti

Cities and agencies spend millions to keep the ugly scrawls under control, with visible improvement in some areas. But it's an unending battle.


It's a silent scourge that just doesn't let up. It leaves ugly lesions scrawled on walls, windows and railroad trestles. It can be a running narrative of gang warfare or the signature of a disenfranchised youth seeking his own brand of glory. To property owners, it is a festering wound, a cowardly affront, a sign of neighborhood decline.

Graffiti, by most accounts, is here to stay. It is ubiquitous, having spread from the urban core to the suburbs and rural farmlands. It has spawned its own lexicon, international magazines and Web sites. American-style graffiti can be found in remote villages in the mountains of Mexico and on walls in the shadow of the Acropolis in Greece.

In Los Angeles County, cities and neighborhoods have been stepping up the war against graffiti for more than 10 years. Police track the most prolific graffiti vandals, commonly known as taggers. Laws prohibit minors from buying spray paint and make parents liable for their children's vandalism. Dozens of abatement crews roll into the streets every morning, erasing the night's scars as quietly as they were inflicted.

In those areas where the most vigilant efforts have been concentrated, the streets are noticeably cleaner than five years ago. But in other neighborhoods, graffiti has taken root, marring storefronts, signs, buses and freeway overpasses. The victories in these battlefronts are patchy, never amounting to a total rout. The vandalism resurfaces when no one is there to fight it.

"In some areas, the graffiti has improved significantly," said Delphia Jones, director of Operation Cleansweep at the Los Angeles Department of Public Works. "In some areas, because of the influx and creation of new gangs, it's gotten a lot worse."

The large-scale, colorful works of graffiti--the so-called "piecing" that gained fame in the '80s--have waned, authorities say. But gang graffiti has increased, bringing more tags into residential and commercial areas. It's most prevalent at the border between the turf of two gangs, where rivals tag over each other's tags, leaving a witch's hair mess of paint on homes and signs.

"It's a continuous battle," said Junious Fontenot of Caltrans, who supervises four graffiti abatement crews in South L.A. "We can't keep up."

Or as Sheriff's Deputy Dennis Porter put it: "We're holding the line. We're not winning or losing."

Vistas of Beige Paint and Razor Wire

Even success is not always pretty. Once-scenic brick storefronts are now lacquer-smooth with dozens of coats of palomino beige. Freeway signs are ringed with ominous loops of razor wire to discourage would-be taggers. Windows are shuttered with steel curtains and stucco walls are splotched with haphazard rectangles of mismatched paint.

Countywide, the 88 incorporated cities and numerous agencies spend about $42 million a year on graffiti removal, officials said. The MTA alone spends more than $1 million a month. The Department of Public Works in Los Angeles spends about $2.5 million annually. Other efforts involve the county, school districts, the railroads, Caltrans and law enforcement agencies.

"The streets look better to the people because a lot of money has gone into it," said Maryanne Hayashi, director of Central City Action Committee, a group contracted by the public works department to remove the graffiti.

The city has created so-called zero-tolerance zones on heavily traveled streets. Crews are contracted to patrol these thoroughfares daily and paint out the marks soon after they are inscribed. They have hotlines and respond to complaints from residents and their City Council members.

Some critics say these programs merely sink money into a losing battle: In the course of a day a wall might be tagged, painted over and tagged again.

"All these abatement programs have done is to make money for these companies," said Alex Alonzo, a USC graduate student who has monitored graffiti in Los Angeles for years and is respected in academic and law enforcement circles for his expertise. "The graffiti is being cleaned up quickly. But it's costing so much money and there's no deterrent."

Yet store owners in targeted areas said the abatement efforts have dramatically improved the look of their neighborhoods.

"The cleanup is definitely better," said Lionel Hernandez, owner of the Farmacia Profesional on Whittier Boulevard in Boyle Heights. "But the graffiti is still there." Hernandez, whose family has owned the pharmacy since 1939, said graffiti was unbearable 10 years ago and remained on walls indefinitely because there were no crews to clean it up.

"You couldn't control it," he said. "They were painting doorknobs, putting glue in your locks."

Now, youngsters still scratch their tags on his windows and leave the occasional spray-painted moniker on his biggest wall. Hernandez painted vines on that wall, in hopes that taggers would search for less distracted tableaux on which to showcase their work. He said that for the last two years, the street has looked clean and upstanding.

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