Graffiti Is Blooming in Los Angeles. Could That Mean Something?

Graffiti in the heart of West Los Angeles
Graffiti in the heart of West Los Angeles
Dennis Romero/L.A. Weekly

If you've noticed a lot of graffiti on city streets between the Westside and downtown, you're not alone.

The Los Angeles Office of Community Beautification reports that the number of requests from the public to eradicate graffiti has been on the rise since fiscal year 2012-13, when the division fielded 95,000 such inquiries.

In 2013-14 the figure jumped to 118,000. In late May the number was 114,000, with five weeks to go until the end of the fiscal year.

"We are noticing an increase in graffiti," said Paul Racs, director of the Office of Community Beautification. "What's really jumped up every year is the number of community service requests we get."

The city also is removing more graffiti. For fiscal year 2012-13, the office removed 26.1 million square feet of the stuff, Racs said. Last fiscal year, that number jumped to 32.6 million square feet, he said.

This year could match or surpass both abatement-request numbers and eradication figures, Racs said. The city had removed 27.1 million square feet of graffiti by late May, with weeks to go.

The figures seem to correlate with or even predate a rare spike in violent crime citywide.

"If you go to South L.A., Boyle Heights, those areas you're going to have a lot more graffiti than maybe in West L.A. or in the West San Fernando Valley, though there's plenty of graffiti there, too," Racs said.

We've observed fresh graffiti in Mid-City, with flourishes in West Los Angeles, Mar Vista and Palms.

A spate of shootings in Palms this spring was precipitated by gang graffiti in that area, officials said. On April 16 five people were shot, one fatally, in two separate gang-related shootings, police said. On April 22 another man was fatally shot on a Palms sidewalk, although possible gang connections remain a mystery.

After the shootings, Racs said, "The LAPD was really working with us," telling graffiti abatement crews, "You guys gotta get the graffiti taken care of quick."

Following the April 16 attack, L.A. City Councilman Paul Koretz told us:

Prior to this, the worse thing we saw in this neighborhood was some graffiti. We don't know if this was building up to this or not.

Indeed, a key question here is whether graffiti is a harbinger of a crime-plagued summer, particularly when it comes to gang violence. Experts we talked to weren't sure. Gang crime has been on a declining slope for decades, graffiti be damned, and much of the stuff is the work of non-gang taggers and would-be street artists anyway.

At the end of May, total violent crime in the city was up 25.7 percent compared with the same time in 2013, according to Los Angeles Police Department statistics. It has been billed as the city's first sustained crime increase in more than a decade.

Interestingly, if Racs' expectation that 118,000 square feet or more of graffiti will be eradicated this fiscal year holds, the increase in take-downs will be about 24 percent since 2013.

Still, experts are wary about correlating graffiti and crime.

Graffiti in Mar Vista
Graffiti in Mar Vista
Dennis Romero/L.A. Weekly

UC Irvine criminology Professor George E. Tita said that, in the long view, a few years' worth of statistical increases in graffiti won't necessarily paint you a picture of a community's overall crime.

"There's nothing unusual about a one-year uptick," he said. "My take on it is ... it's too early to tell."

UCLA anthropology professor P. Jeffrey Brantingham said there are many hypothetical reasons that graffiti could appear to be on the rise, from an increase in eradication funding (Racs, in fact, said some cash for the Office of Community Beautification had been "restored"), to a population bump in the number of tagger-age teens on the streets. 

He also offered up this contrarian idea: Gang tagging can keep turf well-defined and reduce violence for those who might otherwise trespass. "Sharper territorial boundaries can reduce conflict between gangs," Brantingham said. "It's like, 'Good fences make good neighbors.'"

UCLA social welfare professor Jorja Leap says any possible correlation between graffiti and the city's spike in violent crime isn't clear. "We're really seeing an uptick in homicides in 77th [LAPD's 77th Street division in South L.A.], but I'm not seeing an uptick in graffiti there."

She said that some critics are pointing to the passage of Proposition 47, which makes minor drug crimes misdemeanors in California, as a possible culprit for L.A.'s latest crime woes. But she also noted that dire predictions about a crime tsunami following enactment of AB 109, which reduced the state's prison population, didn't come true at all.

However, Leap says, "An increase in tagging is never a good thing. It's usually a sign that there's been some kind of a breakdown."

We reached out to 77th Street division Capt. Cory Palka, a 77th Street division gang enforcement detail sergeant, and the city's gang czar, Anne Tremblay, but they declined to comment for this story. 

Leap credited the mayor's office for "expanding the number of GRYD [Gang Reduction and Youth Development] zones and looking for more community-based support."

She said the spate of homicides in South Los Angeles in recent months was on City Hall's radar, for sure.

"Both the LAPD and the mayor's office are going to try to come together to deal with this," Leap said. "There's no denying what's going on in terms of shootings and homicides."

Chief Charlie Beck has acknowledged that gang crime, as has been the case for decades, has been a driving force behind the increase in violence, particularly when it comes to homicides in certain regions of town.

Police on the streets, meanwhile, are focusing on graffiti that crosses out that of a rival gang or marks territory not normally claimed by a particular set. This is a sign that someone could be shot.

Det. M. Williams of LAPD's Eastside-based Hollenbeck Division says graffiti in his area has been static. But he explained to us what gang cops on the streets are looking for:

One gang will cross another out and write their own name. That's usually an indicator that there's a feud about to occur or that there's an old feud about to start up again. We pay attention to that more than an overall number [of graffiti reports]. Sometimes gangs want to make their territory as big as possible, so they'll hit corners they normally don't claim. They'll write gang names and an arrow going down, saying this is our spot right here. That's what we usually pay attention to.

Graffiti in Mar Vista
Graffiti in Mar Vista
Dennis Romero/L.A. Weekly

The citywide graffiti increase "doesn't mean that we're going to have a rough summer," the detective said.

Lt. Elaine Morales of LAPD's Wilshire division gang enforcement unit said that, during a graffiti abatement session with volunteers from Loyola Marymount University about a month ago, it was hard to find tagging to paint over in her area.

"We did paint out about seven locations," she said. 

New graffiti gets reported to her, Morales said. And her cops also keep a particular eye out for gangs crossing out each other's tags. "It's crucial," the lieutenant said. "We want the area to look clean."

A gang lieutenant in LAPD's Olympic division, where graffiti is rife along Washington, Venice and Pico boulevards, said the tagging is still nothing like it was in the 1980s and 1990s. "It was out of control," he said.

Racs of the city's beautification office warns that festering graffiti of any era "can attract a lot more than just more writing on the walls."

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow L.A. Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews.


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