Call it a new "tag" line to the story of Los Angeles' war on graffiti: Crime can pay.
That was one of the messages delivered Thursday to educators, representatives of arts and civics organizations and social service and law enforcement agencies meeting to discuss ways of using art to keep youngsters out of trouble.
It turns out that the gang names and slogans that taggers illegally scrawl on freeway bridges and alley walls might actually be signposts pointing the way to future success, for some.
That's because "graffiti art is one of the most sought-after, recognizable and popular commodities in today's business and entertainment world," as the city's Cultural Affairs Department explained it at a conference.
The event drew about 500 to downtown Los Angeles for a series of panel discussions on how the creative process can stem juvenile delinquency and enrich learning.
But one of the seminars, on the "Business of Graffiti Art," was especially provocative in a city where people spend millions a year removing graffiti, and taggers are considered by many to be one of the scourges of urban living. Police Chief William J. Bratton, in fact, proclaimed fighting graffiti his No. 1 priority when he took office a year ago, saying the scrawl is a precursor to more serious crimes.
The panel featured veteran taggers who explained how they are making money creating aerosol artwork for corporate clients and collectors. And some of them still have time to hit the streets for nighttime vandalism after their day jobs.
A 31-year-old Echo Park tagger who identified himself only as "MEAR One" described how he alternates between legal and illegal spray-painting. The commercial work pays his bills; the street work keeps his creative juices flowing.
"In 1986 I started tagging -- destroying buses, street signs, whatever I could," he said. "Many of us have served prison and community service time and those wonderful things."
Panelist Bobby Ruiz, 40, of Escondido, said he started spray-painting neighborhood walls in 1976. Thirteen years later he began putting graffiti on T-shirts and selling them.
He says his Tribal Streetwear is a successful international company that has provided work for as many as 200 graffitists over the years.
Aerosol artist Alex Poli, a 32-year-old Rosemead resident known as "Man One," said he started tagging Los Angeles streets in 1987. Later, he earned a fine arts degree from Loyola Marymount and snagged a series of commercial mural and design jobs for companies such as MTV and AT&T. He also runs a small Alhambra art gallery.
"Everybody talks about the negative part of graffiti, how much it costs the city to clean it up," Poli said. But graffiti "keeps a lot of people in paychecks" -- and not just those doing the cleanup work. His CreWest Gallery sells graffiti paintings for up to $700 each, he said.
But Poli bemoaned the hostile reception that spray-painters receive in Los Angeles, where one agency alone, Operation Clean Sweep, spends $6 million a year removing graffiti.
That forces true aerosol artisans underground. "Just the act of holding a spray can is politically charged," Poli said.
After the session, panel audience member Bethany Fernley, a representative of the Union Bank Foundation, agreed that graffiti is a touchy subject. "I don't have a problem with it. But that's not true with every banker you talk to," she said.
Other seminars Thursday focused on gang art -- "the creative side of one of Los Angeles' most unpopular cultures" -- and on how private organizations can collaborate with law enforcement and city agencies in the creation of new arts programs.
As taggers, teachers and others joined for a luncheon break in the hotel's gold-accented Crystal Ballroom, conference planner Elizabeth Morin suggested that the city's graffiti vandalism problem could be eased if clandestine spray-painters were given access to real art programs and legal places to practice their spritzing.
The line may sometimes seem finely sprayed, but there's a difference between graffiti vandalism and graffiti art, said Morin, the Cultural Affairs Department's director of Youth Arts and Education.
"Cultural Affairs does not condone vandalism," she said.