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Theft, Disrespect Upset Graffiti Removal Workers

Crime: Up to $70,000 in equipment is stolen from project employing former gang members.


Johnny Ortega went to work Friday and confronted something very familiar--disrespect.

This time it wasn't about spray-painted gang names or taunts yelled from passing cars. Friday morning's affront was all about what someone did when he wasn't watching, something that couldn't be erased by a coat of paint.

Sometime between 8:30 p.m. Thursday and 4:30 a.m. Friday, most of Homeboy Industries' graffiti removal equipment was stolen from its storage area in an underground parking lot, leaving the 14-member crew with plenty of paint but none of the gear that made it so efficient.

Founded and run by Father Greg Boyle, Homeboy Industries employs former rival gang members in a variety of businesses, including the graffiti removal project.

The amount of pilfered equipment--six sprayer machines, two color-matching machines, two paint mixers and an industrial lawnmower--made the crew skeptical that it was the work of neighborhood hoodlums. After all, the last time someone messed with their storage area, they left a note--"Sorry homies; No disrespect; We were drunk."--written on a nearby wall with a marker.

Friday's discovery that $60,000 to $70,000 worth of equipment was stolen won't cripple the 3-year-old program, but it reverted it back to an older form of graffiti removal--buckets and rollers.

"It feels somewhat intentional," said Cara Gould, the group's operations director. "It feels like a disrespect of us."

Respect means a lot in a community subdivided by no less than 10 gangs, each writing their name on buildings, walls, signs or trees that provide a large enough canvas.

Lately, gangs have started to leave walls alone, realizing the futility of spray-painting a wall that could be color-matched and repainted hours later. Gang members, the same who used to clash with graffiti removal crews, now approach crews to ask for favors, such as removing graffiti from their mother's house, said crew supervisor Grant Oldfield.

On July 1, the graffiti removal project doubled its crew and coverage area to include all of Los Angeles City Councilman Nick Pacheco's 14th District, which includes Boyle Heights, Eagle Rock, El Serrano and Highland Park. Previously, the crew was responsible for only half of the district.

Pacheco said Friday afternoon that the equipment needed to be replaced quickly, and he hoped a combination of city money and donations could get the crews working efficiently again.

Removing graffiti in Boyle Heights is about more than repainting walls. "If one gang goes into another gang's neighborhood ... the other gang is going to respond," Gould said. "Graffiti is a provoker of violence between gang members."

Ortega knows trouble happens when rival gangs cross out each other's names on a wall. A former gang member, Ortega used to tag, stealing spray paint from auto parts stores.

Now 33, he left his gang eight years ago. In 1999, he joined the graffiti removal team, working alongside men he used to hate because of their gang affiliation.

Ortega was one of the first to find that the storage area at 6th and St. Louis streets had been burglarized. He kicked buckets and cursed.

By Friday afternoon, he surveyed what was left--"paint and a couple of ladders."

And of course, rollers.

The crew could go back and do detail work, touch up spots it missed, Ortega said.

"If the wall's big, we have to roll it anyway," he said.

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