Los Angeles' War on Street Artists
Sight: "I know I did a lot of damage, but I'm in a cell with a guy doing half the time for attempted murder. I'm like, 'Wow, I better be nice, or he'll try to kill me, too.' "
PHOTO BY NANETTE GONZALES
Back when L.A. graffiti artist Sight was a teenager, he began slipping out of his mom's South Central home late at night, armed with a razor blade or a can of spray paint, to claim the city's surfaces as his own.
"When you go out in the nighttime, there's nobody out there," he recalls. "There's a full moon; the air's crisp. I'm with just me and my thoughts. It's a beautiful experience."
Marilyn Avila, Sight's high school sweetheart and, now, the mother of his two children — 6-month-old Sofia and 18-month-old Adam — says, "I saw how happy it made him. It almost freed his mind."
Sight was so prolific in his early days that he was known by peers, and graffiti watchers at large, as the "King of South Central."
Avila recalls: "We would get on the bus, and if there was other graf artists in there, he would know almost all of them. If not, he'll be, like, 'Oh, I'm Sight,' and they'll be, like, 'What?! You're Sight?!' "
By the time the young vandal began attending Los Angeles City College, though, he claims he didn't have time for the all-night branding sprees of his adolescence. He was working two jobs on top of journalism classes, and drove a car instead of riding and cutting up windows on the bus.
When he did break out the spray paint, says Sight, now 30, he had evolved from bus scribing and tagging to throwing up (spray-painting his name in big bubbly letters) and piecing (collaborating with friends on complex, mural-type works). His code of ethics was: "We're not going to write on anything that looks good. We'd look for abandoned buildings, and walls that were really tagged up. We'd want to put some color right there."
Along with his dream of becoming a journalist, Sight hoped to publish poetry and learn to piece like Saber and Revok, his heroes in the legendary Mad Society Kings (MSK) crew.
"It was like springtime," he says of the early 2000s. "Everything was blossoming — there was so much potential.
"Now, it's wintertime."
In 2006, Sight was handed the harshest sentence any artist or law enforcement official can recall for graffiti vandalism: Eight years and four months in state prison.
Released after four years for good behavior, he's perhaps the most dramatic casualty to date in L.A.'s war on street art — a multipronged effort that views young graffiti artists as public enemy No. 1 and has destroyed even those graffiti-style murals painted with full consent of building owners. As galleries and museums increasingly recognize the movement's artistic value, government officials only become more determined to wipe it from the streets.
Sight — a short, burly black man with a fuzzy beard and a gentle disposition — had and has no record of violence. "He gets mad at me if I kill a spider," his girlfriend says.
From the couple's one-bedroom apartment in South Central, Sight relives the morning the cops came for him: Ten to 15 deputies busted into his grandmother's house with "laser guns and body armor," he says, barking at him to hand over his drugs and weapons. Finding none, they took his paint and his poetry books, Sight says.
Because Sight's most expensive — and thus felonious — damage was beyond the five-year statute of limitations, he says, police asked him to date evidence photos of his graffiti "for a more recent date," in return for which, they told him, " 'We'll let you go and get you probation.' "
Sheriff's deputy Devin Vanderlaan, who investigated Sight, calls his accusation "absolutely ridiculous." UPN member Tahoe claims the same happened to him.
Sight would spend a one-year stint alongside rapists and murderers at Folsom State Prison, where he says fellow inmates almost killed him for hanging back during a race riot. But worse than hard-core Folsom was L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca's own Men's Central Jail, where Sight says that, among other degradations, he saw prison guards break the fingers of inmates who misbehaved.
Today, two years after his release, with 10 unusual "felony" counts for nonviolent vandalism on his permanent record, Sight can't even get a job as a dishwasher. He says he's filled out hundreds of job applications, but potential employers won't believe that spraying paint on walls or etching one's name onto bus panels could lead to felony charges in America.
"They think I blew up cars or smashed out windows or something," Sight says. "They think I'm a terrorist."
To believe Metro's version of the damage Sight did to L.A., he nearly was. They claimed he caused $70,000 in damage, on the basis that each Metro window or metal panel he etched was replaced. In fact, bus windows often are sanded down by graffiti-abatement crews — and tend to be marred by tagger upon tagger long before parts are actually replaced — but the exaggerated cost claims play well in court.
The fallen street legend is almost too humiliated to admit that the only work he's been able to find — through a program that helps ex-felons — is buffing out graffiti for a company contracted by L.A. City Hall.
"It hurts. It sucks," he says. "I love graffiti — I don't want to take down no graffiti."
The job, Sight says, is ruining his identity and credibility; he would rather do anything else in the world. Before the buffing gig, Sight worked part-time for the same company as an alley cleaner, where he picked up "trash, shit buckets, dead cats and rats."
He would do it again in an instant if it offered the same long hours he needs to support his family.
His girlfriend, a full-time vendor at Staples Center, says Sight doesn't write poetry or talk about the future anymore. "It's almost like his spirit kind of died," Avila says.
That's what he gets for messing with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority — and, in effect, messing with the Special Problems Unit of Sheriff Baca's Transit Services Bureau, whose sole job is to ferret out troublemakers on the Metro system.
The unit is widely recognized as one of the most ruthless and effective anti-graffiti task forces on Earth, and it has mastered the all-crew takedown, according to critics such as the ACLU and admirers such as the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Sight and his crew, UPN, were among the Special Problems Unit's first big trophies.
L.A.'s rampant graffiti problem, a major source of public outcry, has been called an "epidemic" by county Supervisor Gloria Molina and "a problem that demands action" by City Councilman José Huizar. The city spends about $7 million and the county about $30 million per year on graffiti removal and etching repair. More than $8 million of that goes to fixing Metro property.
"When we have a target, it starts on Metro," says Sgt. Christian Meadows, second in command at the Special Problems Unit. The team's jurisdiction is any Metro property, including subway cars, stations or buses.
In 2010, some 20 deputies and sergeants in the Special Problems Unit served 414 "social media" search warrants on Twitter and other accounts and conducted 96 probation or parole searches — resulting in 183 felony and 173 misdemeanor arrests.
The tagger roundup is accelerated by digital-age technology: Not only do deputies snoop through social media accounts, but a new, game-changing graffiti database called T.A.G.R.S. allows them to browse through its extensive, countywide photo archive for suspects' scrawled monikers.
The tie between graffiti and public transit runs deep. Hard-core L.A. gangsters have been marking up the city since the early 20th century. But nongang graffiti in the wildstyle form was born decades later, on the New York City subway system in the turmoil-filled protest society of the 1970s.
So crews such as Sight's UPN — also called Under Pigs' Noses or Ur Property Next — are posing a direct challenge to the Sheriff's Transit Services Bureau when they scrawl or scratch their letters on Metro property. "Ever since the beginning of tagging, it's been kind of a cat-and-mouse thing" between cops and the taggers who taunt them, says Special Problems Unit detective Michael Thibodeaux. "That's part of the excitement to it."
The key, for Baca's bunch, was learning how to round up the mice en masse — and finding a Los Angeles prosecutor and courts that would go along.
Perhaps the most brazen cop taunt in the history of L.A. graffiti was staged by the crew MTA, or Metro Transit Assassins, in 2008.
Unidentified Metro Transit Assassin members used hundreds of gallons of paint to tag the huge, slanted side of a concrete Los Angeles River bank near the Fourth Street Bridge and 101 freeway with "MTA." That name, of course, belonged to the wealthy transit authority they were mocking, an agency that has steadily cut the region's heavily used bus service for poor minorities while pouring billions into far less utilized rail lines for white-collar commuters. The giant, 3-D block letters, thought to form America's largest tag, were 30 feet tall and a half-mile wide.
No plane, train nor freeway commuter within eyeshot could avoid bearing witness.
The Metro Transit Assassins, even those who did not participate, were punished accordingly.
Because Baca's underlings couldn't prove who did it, they rounded up 11 taggers linked to MTA — including rising graffiti artist Smear, who had begun selling his works in galleries — and, supported by L.A. City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, built a backbreaking civil lawsuit against them.
Dangling a $3.7 million cleanup cost before them, Trutanich offered the defendants a deal: If they paid off their previous graffiti damage in L.A., did community service and promised to be good, Trutanich would forgive the alleged $3.7 million in damages.
But the young people were in fact agreeing to far more: a watershed settlement that, according to the city attorney's office, creates the world's first "tagger injunction." It can be used much like a gang injunction and opens the door for more such "tagger injunctions" against other graffiti crews.
To the art world, crews like MTA are collaborative groups that encourage creativity and growth. But the injunction would let cops arrest anyone tied to MTA, or to any other crew slapped with a similar injunction, merely for hanging out together in public, carrying a can of spray paint or violating a 10 p.m. curfew.
Peter Bibring, the ACLU lawyer who represented Smear, says the injunction "raises clear First Amendment concerns" and puts "really serious restrictions against people's liberty."
City attorney's spokesman Frank Mateljan says in an email that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Deirdre Hill is expected to approve the injunction deal in October without a hitch. If that happens, somewhat incredibly, when MTA members try to use their well-known street names to launch legitimate art careers, they may face Carmen Trutanich in court. Under the proposed injunction, Trutanich claims stamping their night-vandal names on legal artwork is an "unfair business practice," because they achieved their fame through illegal acts — tagging others' property.
Rime, a highly skilled graffiti writer with L.A.'s artistic MSK crew, says, "When you do a good job in anything you do, there is that hope for growth."
But if government officials take away legal options for graffiti artists to rise and perhaps even earn a living through self-expression, "They're pushing good kids into felons," Rime says.
The ACLU's Bibring argues, "You can't say someone who has previously engaged in a crime can't engage in certain kinds of expression in the future. I would hope the city would encourage people to turn their talents to productive and legal uses."
While violent gang members face injunctions that stop at the edge of their turf in East Los Angeles or South Central, Bibring calls this tagger injunction aimed at nonviolent young people "remarkable" in its geographic reach: It applies statewide.
"They should stop making false bad guys out of us," says Saber, another MSK celebrity.
But the truth is, the Special Problems Unit and Sheriff Baca don't even need the new injunction Trutanich is so excited about. Metro and the sheriff already treat taggers as full-on gangsters, under the California Street Terrorism Enforcement and Prevention Act (STEP Act).
Designed to combat rampant gang crime in 1980s ghettos, the act lets gangsters be punished more severely if cops prove their crimes are on behalf of a criminal organization. The Special Problems Unit, however, is using the STEP Act to add "gang enhancements" to misdemeanor-level Sharpie doodles drawn on walls, thus promoting those marks to a felony. The $400 minimum damage normally required to turn a California citizen into a felon is waived.
Under Metro's use of the STEP Act, a colorful loop of words that might cost $150 to paint over can make a young person a felon for life. "All these crews are just gangsters at the end of the day," Sgt. Meadows says.
But a growing body of critics says law enforcement is stigmatizing a vibrant — albeit unpopular with many residents — subculture by focusing on the violence of gangsters who tag, a different group. According to L.A. graffiti historian Steve Grody, almost every graffiti artist currently taking galleries by storm started out as a garden-variety tagger.
"People want the rain without the thunder and the lightning," Grody says. "If you're going to let a culture have some sense of self-expression, then that includes youth-movement things. That doesn't mean all 'bombing' should be left alone. [But] when it's treated as though it's some sort of horrible, harmful felony, it's out of balance."
Grody, author of Graffiti L.A.: Street Styles and Art, and co-curator of last year's "Street Cred: Graffiti Art From Concrete to Canvas" show at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, sees clear visual distinctions between gang and nongang graffiti.
"If you're a gangster, you write in a certain way that makes it clear that you're a gangster," he says.
While some popular graffiti is "gang-influenced in its letter forms and its badass attitude," Grody feels that any cop trained in the nuances of both cultures could tell the difference.
On a recent L.A. Weekly ride-along with the Special Problems Unit, two undercover, plainclothes deputies lingered at the Green Line's Willowbrook station for just 10 minutes before spotting someone suspicious. A Latino teenager waiting for the train with his sister had meticulously tagged the surfaces of his backpack and skateboard.
The deputies started questioning the boy about his choice of decor: Was he a tagger? What crew? And what was in the backpack?
He never gave up his moniker ("Realm" and "WDK" were prominent on his backpack and board) but admitted he was a tagger and was carrying a box cutter and spray paint. The 14-year-old was handcuffed and placed in the back of a squad car. It was his first encounter in what officers predicted would be a long relationship with the law.
Deputy Kevin Hom tells the Weekly that even without the spray paint, the graffiti-style writing covering the boy's belongings created probable cause to search him for tagging tools.
Unlike most gangsters, a tagger often touts his crew on his sleeve. "Here's what's weird about taggers: They're proud of what they do and want to talk tons about it," Sgt. Meadows says.
Experts say many taggers don't think of themselves as criminals, and — like many young people — need a way to release their frustration, desire, independence, freedom and rage.
Historian Grody even goes so far as to argue that tagging — while a nuisance to many that does warrant some punishment — is also a stepping stone to perfecting the graffiti style, without which many of the genre's talented stars would not exist.
"They have evolved their styles under pressure to distinguish themselves stylistically and, in terms of scale, from other people," Grody says. "The seeds of it are the tags. The tag grows into the 'throw-up'; the throw-up grows into the 'piece'; the piece grows into the mural."
Graffiti was honored as a respected urban art form last year in L.A., when the Museum of Contemporary Art hosted its controversial "Art in the Streets" exhibit, making global headlines. LAPD and sheriff's officials used the hubbub to publicize their own Koreatown tagging crackdown, claiming that vandals inspired by MOCA's show had gone on a destructive spree.
"The exhibit kind of glorifies graffiti," Sgt. Augie Pando, of the Special Problems Unit, told the L.A. Times. "It puts taggers on front street."
Many in law enforcement, watching graffiti move from the alleys to pop culture, see little good coming from this evolution. Ramona Findley, head of the LAPD's anti-graffiti unit, says it's feeding the city's graffiti epidemic. "Even Hello Kitty has a line of graffiti makeup," she says. "This makes kids think it's OK. Young children don't know the difference between art and vandalism."
Vyal, a seasoned L.A. graffer who runs youth workshops out of his East L.A. studio, and recently did graffiti-style works for Lexus and Neiman Marcus, says sheriff's deputies often pester him about his colorful walls, criticizing him for inspiring kids to illegally scar the city.
After the MOCA show, he says, they prodded him about an old bus that MSK artist Risk bought and painted, saying it encouraged kids to tag Metro property.
Trutanich snagged the crackdown's boldest headlines by serving multiple probation-violation arrest warrants against Revok, one of L.A.'s most internationally renowned graffiti talents, and Smear, whose raw, explosive gallery work was getting the attention of art critics. Metro's Transit Services Bureau, working with Trutanich, arrested Revok in 2011 at LAX as he headed to Ireland — where he's admired by many as an edgy, urban artist — to do a commission. Trutanich sought a steep bail, and a judge agreed to $300,000 — citing Revok's high risk of fleeing the country. The L.A. celebrity got 180 days in jail and later moved to Detroit in disgust.
Smear, who says he was only a member of Metro Transit Assassins for a year or two in the early aughts, was subjected to multiple sheriff's raids at his art studio. The more press he got — such as a sympathetic 2011 spread in the Los Angeles Times — the more he felt targeted by Trutanich and Metro.
On the L.A. Weekly ride-along, Sgt. Meadows of the Special Problems Unit gave his opinion of Smear: "He was part of MTA, so he was a bad guy."
More and more, police are furtively invading art galleries and shows. A spokesman at Known Gallery on Fairfax, one of the first to bring graffiti indoors, says openings are frequented by undercover cops, who ask "uncomfortable questions" about particular artists — such as whether they also create illegal outdoor art. Smear says MOCA's show also was "crawling with pigs."
Rime argues that by denying graffiti as a creative outlet and a form of art — by "making this clear black-or-white definition of it, that either you're a vandal or you're an artist that doesn't use spray paint" — city and county officials are revving up young people to defy them. "They think that if they can make an example out of Revok, they can discourage a new generation. But they're having the opposite effect: They're making [kids] act out."
For better or worse, a new generation loves this form of self-expression, and can't get enough of the spray. L.A. galleries such as Lab Art on La Brea Avenue and Hold Up in Little Tokyo almost exclusively show street artists, their crowded openings often spilling out onto the sidewalks.
In Los Angeles, which Councilman Huizar likes to boast is "the mural capital of the world," the painting of any mural on an outdoor wall, even with permission from that wall's owner, is illegal.
This, thanks to a 2002 billboard ban by the L.A. City Council, crafted to protect it from being sued by wealthy, multinational billboard companies. According to L.A. City Planner Thomas Rothman, billboard firms argued that one type of "speech," billboard advertising, could not be banned in L.A. if another type of "speech," outdoor art, was allowed.
Ironically, ever since, City Hall has been destroying public art but has given a free pass to illegal billboards. City officials believe at least 1,000 illegal billboards clutter the skyline. They are not being torn down. But hundreds of graffiti-style murals are being painted over — at taxpayer expense, on orders of the Department of Building and Safety and the Department of Public Works.
"There are a number of illegal billboards in Los Angeles, but no one at City Hall is calling them vandals," says Gwenaëlle Gobé, director of documentary This Space Available. "It is easy to demote graffiti art as a vulgar business practice, [but] to me it is a political act. They are there as a reminder that we have a voice in our spaces."
The City Council has spent a full four years trying to undo the mess it created, by writing a special "mural ordinance" to allow art on walls. Still months from approval, it would require a building owner to pay a $60 fee and hold a neighborhood hearing before any mural could go up.
In the meantime, the Department of Public Works often gives minimum-wage buffers — like Sight — the discretion to decide which walls would look better beige. More often than not, artists say, works done with spray paint are targeted over pieces by European artists or designs that look more calm or traditional.
Earlier this month, Man One and Vyal, local graffiti icons, saw their neon-electric collaboration on a brick wall downtown painted over in the early morning hours. A week later, they were flown out to the United Kingdom and Germany to stage live graffiti demonstrations for fans abroad.
"How is it that we can't paint in our own backyard?" Man One asks. "It's destroying our mural culture, our art culture in L.A."
The city denies it ordered the buff-out. But a security guard at a building across the street tells L.A. Weekly that the buffer was dressed like a city employee, and carried a bucket of paint matched precisely to the wall's dead-brown hue.
"The upsetting part is tracking down who the hell is responsible for this coming down," Man One says. "Someone is dictating whether that should happen. I'm curious about who picked this wall, and why."
Smear asks, "Do people really want to see boring old walls, driving around, just like bland beige and gray and palomino walls? Just concrete, and everything all manicured?"
Detective Findley, with LAPD's anti-graffiti unit, has an answer to that: "There's still a sense of fear to [aerosol work]," she says. "It reminds people of the downfall of a neighborhood. In the community's mind, it means gangs. It scares people."
It apparently scared Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina, who ordered a massive community graffiti project led by Man One to be buffed from the L.A. River in 2007. That was followed by the recent obliteration of an all-female production commissioned by A&K Auto Repair in East Los Angeles. Just days after bouncy graffiti chick Sand One and a visiting Miami artist, Miss Reds, put up a stunning mural on the auto repair shop — to ward off gang tags — L.A. County sent a crew of buffers by to blot out their work.
"It was helping keep the taggers away," says auto shop manager Maria Martinez. Not only that, but Asian tourists were stopping by to take photos in front of the mural.
When the Weekly called the L.A. County Department of Public Works, graffiti-abatement staffer Tino Kallamanis rushed over to apologize to Martinez. The shop manager says Kallamanis told her that Supervisor Molina ordered the mural removed because it featured the words "Eastside Chola" in a heart in the bottom right corner.
Molina's spokeswoman denies that. However, Public Works spokesman Bob Spencer affirms that the mural was destroyed "because of the gang-affiliated term that is featured on it: 'Eastside Chola.' " The county's policy, he says, is to remove any paintings that "contain gang-affiliated references or vulgarity."
Directly above the painted-over wall looms a billboard reading "1-800-GET-THIN," touting a controversial medical procedure. The county's Department of Building and Safety spokesman says that if it got a complaint about offensive language on a billboard, it wouldn't paint over it; it would seek a resolution between the company and the neighbors.
Sand, who adores the word "chola" and says it is part of her culture, is furious. "When I say the word 'chola,' it's not negative," she says. "It's so Latin girls can relate to what I paint. What I'm showing is that if you come from a low-income, gangbanging area, like me, you can break out of that."
Her trademark characters — sexy cartoon girls with giant, feathery eyelashes — are among the cutesier outdoor artworks dotting the L.A. area. But since last year, Sand, who's in her early 20s, has seen five of her murals, all painted with permission from a building owner, destroyed by officials in downtown Los Angeles and in East L.A.
"It's, like, 'Dude, I just painted a mural with a girl eating a cupcake. You're really going to send your squad every single morning to bother the owners and harass them to erase the wall?" she says.
Another artist who's been putting up a lot of work around South Central, Chelo from the K4P crew, says he soldiers on because "around my neighborhood, everything has to do with gangs. Everything has to do with negativity. I thought I could change that."
His admirers see his intricate, alienlike characters and eye-popping wildstyle as being on par with major MSK works in Hollywood, giving South Central something to be proud of.
But anti-tagger legislation like Molina's "graffiti ordinance" and Chief Deputy District Attorney Jackie Lacey's "Graffiti Prosecution Program" — which the women drafted in response to tragic murders by violent taggers — have made it easier to lock up graffiti vandals on felony convictions, even if they are not part of that violent world. (Lacey is running for DA, touting her toughness on graffiti.)
The tagger-murderers turned out to be hard-core gangsters — people even the graffiti writers fear. Says Saber: "Just the fact that, if a kid writes on a pole on an illegal billboard he'll receive a felony, already shows you the disproportionate mess that is the Los Angeles penal system."
Grody, a scholar who has devoted decades to documenting outdoor art, thinks the city's and county's approach is tragically simplistic, quoting a 19th-century Swiss historian: "The essence of tyranny is the denial of complexity."
Rime adds that L.A. officials "need to accept that it's going to be there, and accept gray-area solutions. ... Can you imagine Los Angeles without graffiti?"
But this is a culture clash between the anti-graffiti residents of Los Angeles, fed up with ugly scrawls and backed by law enforcement, and the intrigued art world, which is embracing graffiti's more practiced and nuanced forms, including major labels and museums.
Clearly, the law is winning. As Detective Thibodeaux puts it: "I love art. But I kind of feel that maybe art should be inside."
Reach the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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