As the Los Angeles River bends into the vast industrial district east of downtown Los Angeles, it looks less like a waterway than a decaying open-air canvas for taggers.
This largely hidden channel that runs through two rail yards is what authorities describe as the ultimate proving ground for graffiti vandals vying for visibility and reputation.
This is not the graffiti you see in alleyways and storefronts. This is tagging on steroids, with monikers big and bold, containing letters that often are as big as garage doors.
The centerpiece is something officials say is the biggest tag they've ever seen: Three block letters that cover a three-story-high wall and run the length of several blocks between the 4th Street and 1st Street bridges. It spells out "MTA" -- Metro Transit Assassins.
These huge graffiti projects take paint rollers, not spray cans.
Some of the most elaborate tags take days, said Sheriff's Deputy Devin Vanderlaan. He points to one that is big enough to be a front lawn and is just an outline. "They are going to come back and finish that one," he said.
Authorities allege that this was a favorite spot for "Buket," allegedly one of L.A.'s most prolific taggers, who was arrested earlier this week.
On Tuesday, L.A. County prosecutors charged 24-year-old Cyrus Yazdani with nearly three dozen counts of felony vandalism, accusing him of spraying his "Buket" moniker on dozens of locations around the county. Yazdani is accused of tagging freeway signs and buses, his work videotaped and shown on YouTube.
Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and officials with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have identified at least 20 "Buket" scrawlings along a stretch of the river spanning a couple of miles, causing an estimated $60,000 in damage.
Cleaning graffiti from the river is far more expensive than cleaning other areas. Officials use high-pressure water spray to remove the toxic paint. But hazardous-material crews must then dam and capture all the paint and water runoff to prevent it from getting into the riverbed.
Roland Gonzales, with the Army Corps of Engineers, estimates that the price tag for cleaning the roughly two miles of concrete walls could reach half a million dollars.
"We can paint today and they'll be back here tomorrow," Gonzales said. "It is a fresh canvas for them. . . . They will be right behind you."
Graffiti began popping up along the river in large quantities in the 1970s, and despite efforts to paint over it, the vandalism continues to be a scourge, federal officials say. And that leads to whether the latest cleanup is worth it.
Among the most ornate taggers is one known as CAB. Using a salmon background, he blends a combination of Jamaican green, yellow, sky blue, aquamarine and purple to make his letters stand out among the more mundane tags. Next to his, Buket's neutral paints look like black-and-white TV in the age of high definition.
Authorities have tried to patrol the area but said catching the taggers has proved difficult. There are escape routes within a fence hop, Vanderlaan said, and taggers easily vanish into the industrial district and rail yards.
As Vanderlaan surveyed the graffiti Thursday, a man in dark clothing with a black backpack scaled a fence and scampered up a support on the 1st Street bridge. But he quickly disappeared, apparently after noticing sheriff's deputies.
As deputies made their way to the river, they spotted two men with spray paint cans covering the 4th Street tunnel entrance. But upon further investigation, they were told the men were painting a set for "Terminator: the "Sarah Connor Chronicles," a Fox television series being shot nearby.
One of the painters, Jake Lagos, said he was scrawling the names or initials of friends and parents of people related to the production crew. "A lot of this is illegible," Lagos said. "I try and stay away from [imitating] the real stuff."