Hitting Taggers where It Hurts

As cities in Los Angeles County fumble to come up with strategies to combat graffiti, a small working-class suburb and a single, very urban Los Angeles City Council district believe they have come up with the answer.

Could this be true?

For decades, officials have battled graffiti, which has long been a marker for gangs who use it for territorial reasons and more recently for taggers who are in it for the fame and notoriety. It is the taggers, mostly teenagers, who some experts say wreak 80 percent of the damage to sidewalks, fences, homes, storefronts, buses and trees.

“It is a popularity thing,” says LAPD Northeast Division officer Dominick Colenzo. “Most aren’t looking to be in gangs, but they become popular when they start to tag. . . . The more daring they get, the more recognition from their peers.”

Colenzo says that some taggers try to outsmart abatement crews by tagging spots like the tops of lampposts because it is “harder to get off” and “better for them because their moniker is out there.”

To combat the problem, the city and county have hired crews to promptly paint over graffiti, instituted dozens of programs, put forth city ordinances that require store owners to lock up spray paint, offered a $1,000 reward for people who turn in graffiti bandits, instituted police crackdowns, and started to enforce a state law that allows an enhancement to a felony charge if the graffiti spray painting was done to benefit a street gang.

Recently, L.A.’s public-works department has hired roving teams of cleanup crews to combat graffiti in high-impact areas. It has hardly seemed to make a dent, but that hasn’t stopped some city officials or neighbors from trying.

One Council District 13 resident, a Sri Lankan native who lives near Beverly Boulevard and Mariposa Avenue in Koreatown, believes that people should “clean the outside” of their homes before they clean the inside — and there’s no tagging or graffiti in Sri Lanka.

Besides fighting tagging, she actually sweeps the sidewalks of her neighborhood regularly — but still wanted anonymity. “The graffiti really gets me,” she says. “It is the worst problem in my life. I can’t stand it.”

In 2004, she joined Los Angeles City Council Member Eric Garcetti’s Uniting Neighborhoods to Abolish Graffiti program (UNTAG) as a block captain. The program, which is based on a program in San Jose, relies on a neighbor from each city block to report new graffiti quickly by either calling the city’s 311 number or contacting Garcetti’s council office, which in turn contacts graffiti-abatement crews, which operate on a first-come, first-serve basis.

“It has been such an effective tool to combat graffiti,” commented Garcetti’s chief of staff, David Gershwin. “We would like to see it expanded on a citywide basis. Regardless of income status, it impacts each and every one of us. Every stakeholder wants to see graffiti removed, and each stakeholder was willing to take a proactive role in getting it removed.”

“If we can get a block captain on every block, there wouldn’t be any graffiti,” says Frank Hilton, a block captain near Melrose Avenue and Hoover Street in East Hollywood. He claims graffiti has been reduced 70 percent on his block. He recently focused his efforts on a nearby auto repair shop that was constantly tagged.

“We would paint it and the next day it would be back,” he says. “I wore them out. [The taggers] decided to save their paint, and they stopped tagging it.”

Garcetti notes that in 2005, graffiti and tagging in his 13.3-square-mile district of roughly 250,000 residents, which takes in Hollywood, Filipinotown, Echo Park, Silver Lake and Elysian Valley, dropped 62 percent, from 20,763 scrawlings down to 7,970. In August 2006, he announced a 55 percent reduction. He attributed the drop to the block captains and the installation of surveillance cameras in Lake Street Park and along the Vermont corridor between Beverly and Hollywood boulevards.

Unfortunately, Garcetti’s numbers don’t necessarily translate to victory, regardless of the efforts of block captains and surveillance cameras, according to graffiti-abatement crews. According to city officials, in 2005, the crews cleaned up 45,341 locations in Garcetti’s district alone. In 2006, they cleaned 45,427 — indicating virtually the same high level of vandalism as the previous year. (In 2003, the year before UNTAG started, crews cleaned 35,821 locations.)

“We still go out 28 days a month,” says Sharyn Romano, president of the Hollywood Beautification Team, who says the size of the job has not abated one bit. That team cleans up 60 percent of Garcetti’s district. “It is a battle every day. It is a constant endeavor. It comes back every day, and you have to go out every day to keep it down.... The problem has not gone away.”

When Garcetti’s program first started, Romano says her staff received more calls than anyone in the history of Los Angeles city graffiti abatement. “Sometimes it was very stressful here, and we had to ask for people’s patience. Sometimes the calls would come in by the hundreds.”

Another city-funded group, the Central City Action Committee, runs eight trucks a day and cleans the remainder of Garcetti’s district, including gang-troubled Elysian Valley.

“Our budget has not gone down from last year,” says executive director Maryanne Hayashi, indicating she has seen no decrease in the unsightly scrawling. “Most months we spend $4,000 to $5,000 in paint.” If there has been a decrease in Garcetti’s district, “our statistics haven’t shown it,” she says.

Her crew has to deal with daily annoyances like gang members who are “laughing and shaking paint cans” while watching the crews paint over the graffiti.

Hayashi says that increasing use of the city’s 311 citizen-complaint hot line has caused problems for gang-abatement crews who already have their hands full cleaning up large streets and main corridors.

“Since 311, it is hard to be proactive because we have to answer them — and they are scattered all over,” she says. “You can have 100 people call 311, but we still only have eight crews going out.... We never lack for graffiti.”

Tim Kephart, founder of Graffiti Tracker Inc., says that painting over graffiti is necessary, but it’s the wrong focus entirely if the goal is to actually reduce the persistent vandalism — and that’s the difference with the high-tech law-enforcement effort and stiff fines used in suburban Pico Rivera.

“You will never outpaint a tagger,” says Kephart, whose unusual, high-tech system uses a camera fitted with a global-positioning device to record a graffiti site. His team then analyzes and categorizes the scrawls based on whether it is gang graffiti or the work of a tagger. The information is uploaded on the Internet and passed to the police, who use it to collect evidence and build legal cases against the culprits.

After eight months of tracking graffiti in 11-square-mile Pico Rivera, a mostly Latino bedroom community, Los Angeles County Deputy Sheriff Gilbert Dominguez and his partner, Sergio Peralta, have made 45 graffiti arrests using Kephart’s system.

Since last September, the city has seen a 40 percent decline in monthly tagging incidents — from 914 incidents in September to 526 in March. In other words, actual tagging is steeply dropping — something Los Angeles and City Councilman Garcetti, despite his enthusiasm, cannot begin to claim.

“None of the taggers we arrested are very artistic,” says Dominguez. “They are just putting up a name or moniker. The more places they can put their moniker, the more it will make them famous” with other teenagers who recognize their initials or scrawls.

Pico Rivera, population 68,000, encircled by Downey, Santa Fe Springs, Whittier, the City of Industry, Montebello and Commerce, has 50 to 100 active taggers, according to Dominguez. He uses intelligence reports from Graffiti Tracker Inc. to identify the most active taggers each week.

Disturbingly, the most prolific culprit  in 2006 turned out to be an out-of-control 12-year-old boy estimated to have cost $25,000 in property damage. Recently, the cops busted another active tagger named Pigeon, 18, who pleaded guilty to a felony — and was billed $11,000 by the city.

Even with their fledgling success in Pico Rivera, Dominguez says many taggers reappear after they get arrested — under new monikers. “Only the people in their subculture know who it is,” he says. “We arrested one kid with two different names.”

Facing an endless game in which adults paint over and restore what the kids will soon destroy, Dominguez has become convinced that stiff monetary penalties — aimed at the parents — might be the answer.

“It could be in the thousands [of dollars], and their parents will be responsible for that,” he says. If Southern California communities really want to reduce the recurring vandalism on their sidewalks, homes and businesses, Dominguez says, it’s time to make it hurt economically by putting liens on their parents’ properties.

More on graffiti: Click here to read Michael Krikorian's article, Where Are the Adults?


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