Last year, the City of Los Angeles removed more than 27 million square feet of graffiti, enough to squirt a 1-foot-wide swath of Rust-Oleum from Hollywood Boulevard to Fifth Avenue in New York City, then double back to State Street in Chicago.

Against the backdrop of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s big, bold quality-of-life initiatives — he’s gonna win the gang war, he’s gonna plant 1 million trees, he’s gonna reform the public schools, he’s gonna solve the traffic snarl — City Hall is locked in an old battle just to slow down thousands of teenage and young-adult tagger vandals who create the tattered, splattered environment that feeds into the “broken-window syndrome” that drags down neighborhoods and invites crime.

The city says it is throwing what it can at the problem, sometimes cleaning up the vandalism quickly — though never quite keeping up. The taggers tag; the city removes. The taggers tag the same wall again; the city removes again — ad nauseam. Think of a racing greyhound, chasing that lure. Never does catch up.

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The failing war on graffiti — a subject Villaraigosa rarely mentions — takes on extra significance against a backdrop of other stalled mayoral efforts to address pressing quality-of-life issues in Los Angeles.

His April 19 budget proposal slashes $18 million from street services — the most-requested public service in Los Angeles — a huge, 11 percent cut that will worsen the city’s staggering, 83-year backlog for basic sidewalk repairs.

Villaraigosa’s administration also concedes it is failing in a five-year battle to remove thousands of illegal and unsightly billboards from neighborhoods citywide, despite a publicly popular removal ordinance approved under Mayor James Hahn in 2002. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo recently decried the “blight” caused by garish illegal billboards, admitting that the billboard industry refuses to remove them — a situation that leaves City Hall looking toothless.

And then there’s the blight of L.A. graffiti. Other than a rare political scrawl on a wall, Los Angeles graffiti comes in two basic forms: gang and tag.

Gang graffiti marks the boundaries of a specific territory — as well as challenges and disrespects other gangs by “crossing out” rivals, an act that has set into motion countless Los Angeles homicides.

The rest is scrawled by individual taggers known as “oners” and tagging “krews” with up to 20 or 30 members, some of whom pride themselves on their sometimes-colorful, arguably artistic, work. But thousands of other kids — the really destructive taggers — focus on sheer quantity in a practice known as “bombing,” or tagging inaccessible spots, like beneath overpasses.

“Some of those guys must be acrobats,” said Paul Racs, director of the city’s Office of Community Beautification, the city department responsible for graffiti removal. “I don’t know how they get to some of those spots. I swear sometimes it seems like Spider-Man is up there.”

{mosimage}That danger is part of the attraction — and one reason Los Angeles officials still haven’t got a clue how to slow it down, and seem resigned instead to trying to cover it up. Yet it is rare to hear any city official address the core cause of the problem head-on: that these kids are having a blast vandalizing L.A.

“The appeal of risk-taking, the bravado of it, is one reason why there has been an increase in the last few years,” says Christine Anderson, a Caltrans maintenance manager. “Some guys want to better each other by tagging daring sites.”

Some fed-up residents who feel the city is not doing enough act almost as beat cops, for example the vocal whistleblowers in the La Cienega Heights neighborhood between La Cienega and Robertson boulevards once known as Cadillac-Corning.

One of them is Michele Wytko, who has lived in the area for 20 years. “I am not the Lone Ranger, but I’m the one with the loudest voice,” said Wytko, who walks the neighborhood with her dog and calls and e-mails the city when she spots the eyesores. “It’s a whole different world when you walk. The sidewalks are covered with it, but you can’t see that from a car.”

She’s critical of City Hall’s supposed fight to win back neighborhoods, saying, “It’s been out of control. They used to come clean it up fast, now it takes time.”

She is particularly upset that with the recent crackdown on street gangs, much ballyhooed in recent days by Villaraigosa, something as basic as reducing the area’s extensive tagging activity has gone nowhere.

“It ticked me off that Villaraigosa and [LAPD Chief William] Bratton are on this big gang kick, and graffiti is a big part of the gang problem, but nothing seems to be done about it,” said Wytko.

Graffiti experts seem to agree that there is more graffiti now than in the past few years, even though, at least in some areas of the city, there is also much more removal.

The graffiti war is raging even as the Los Angeles Planning Commission, disheartened by longtime “indifference” in City Hall, this week announced 14 planning principles for reducing visual blight, greening the streets — and fighting the growing ugliness that is L.A.

“I don’t think the removal is slower, it is just that more graffiti than ever is popping up,” said Racs, whose office had a budget of $7.5 million for graffiti removal in fiscal 2006. “Our contractors removed a record 27 million square feet of graffiti from 489,000 locations last year.”

So far in 2007, more than 6.7 million square feet of all forms of graffiti has been removed from 139,040 locations, according to Racs, the vast majority of it removed by 14 contractors whose crews drive around, spot graffiti and paint over it.

Not surprisingly, the worst areas are Boyle Heights and South Los Angeles — the neighborhoods with the most gangs, Racs said.

While residents rightfully complain about the writing on the wall, the current state of graffiti in no way rivals the ugliness that spray paint wrought in the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s. Back then, there was little in the way of removal. In some South-Central and Eastside neighborhoods, it was unusual to see a wall that was not marked by gang graffiti. One of the most scarred streets was Hoover Street.

This past Sunday, on a leisurely five-mile cruise up Hoover from Imperial Highway to Vernon Avenue, I spotted only six scrawls along the road. There were more in the alleys and, admittedly, this was the view from a car — not the view pedestrians have, of prevalent sidewalk graffiti. Still, the situation on Hoover is a very significant improvement over the 1980s.

{mosimage}But recently, the gang members and taggers seem to be more emboldened, even as the City Hall press conferences stack up, with officials decrying street crime and gang violence — and announcing reports and plans for combating it.

“I would definitely say there is more graffiti now, especially in our area,” said Mark Wilson, executive director of the Coalition for Responsible Community Development, which includes most of gang-riddled South Los Angeles. “But there is more graffiti removal than ever before also. The problem is trying to keep up with the taggers.”

Wilson said the 20 people who work on graffiti removal for the South Los Angeles Beautification Team encounter gang members on an almost daily basis.

“It sounds ridiculous in our society,” said Wilson, “but our workers sometimes have to ask permission from gang members if it is okay to remove the graffiti.”

Perhaps nowhere is graffiti more pervasive than on the city’s vast freeway system. Caltrans might appear particularly slow to respond, allowing marked walls and off-ramp signs to offer grim views to gridlocked motorists. But graffiti is a low priority for Caltrans.

“Our main task is the preservation of the roadway to prevent hazards of a deadly nature — the potholes, sealing cracks, pavement, rail guards,” said Anderson, whose Los Angeles maintenance team was cut from 250 in 1999 to its current 171. “The beauty of the freeway is important. We sympathize with that, but it is not a high priority. Especially with fewer workers.”

Anderson points to sound walls as one reason for the increase in freeway tagging. “We are building a lot more sound walls now, and it’s a good thing for cutting down freeway noise for the neighborhoods, but it’s just another big easel for the taggers,” she said, adding that her South District has more than 75 miles of sound walls.

One particularly hard-hit section is the northbound transition road from the Harbor Freeway onto the northbound Hollywood Freeway in downtown L.A. Daredevil taggers have managed to spray-paint all four levels of the interchange, baffling many.

“It amazes me that some of these taggers are risking their lives just to tag a wall,” said Sergeant Javier Dominguez of the California Highway Patrol, who says children as young as 12 and adults as old as 32 have been arrested for tagging.

Many find the tagging problem — the vast majority of which is unleashed at night when lawbreakers roam the streets under the protection of the dark — at its most repugnant on the city’s murals.

One of the most famous of the freeway murals, L.A. Marathon by artist Kent Twitchell, was so scarred by vandalism that the mural was painstakingly moved two years ago. Originally located on the San Diego (405) Freeway near LAX, it was part of a $1.7 million Caltrans and city restoration project and was moved to the Golden State (5) Freeway near Stadium Way in 2005.

The Rotary Club of Vernon adopted the mural and helps keep it clean. “It still gets tagged, but every few months we clean it,” said Donn Cottom, former Rotary Club president.

In addition to organizations like the Rotary Club, individual small-business owners are stepping up, and not waiting around for the city to do something.

“It’s up to the owners of the buildings not being afraid and changing the energy of the building,” said Barbara Sklar, who owns an apartment building in La Cienega Heights. “When I bought the building it was bad, full of gang members and graffiti and drugs. I got rid of some tenants, painted the buildings a lighter color, put up some lights.”

Sklar urges, “Be proactive… The landlords can’t be afraid to spend a little money. We don’t have to wait for the city. We can change Los Angeles step by step.”

But not everybody sees the problem as their responsibility. In Canoga Park on Sherman Way at Owensmouth Avenue, two adjacent business owners tell conflicting graffiti tales.

“Ten years ago it was not much of a problem, but now it’s terrible,” said Pedro Baltazar, who for 20 years has operated Pedro’s Barbershop. Two weeks ago, his sign, atop a one-story building, was tagged with a black scrawl. Near that tag, in smaller yellow paint, is a tag that Baltazar said has been there for months. Yet he admits he has never called the city graffiti-removal hotline (a simple matter of calling 311).

Right next door, the owner of the Family Furniture Warehouse #1 said graffiti was “not very bad,” but if his Canoga Park building does get tagged he simply calls and the city removes it.

“I’ve only had to call one or two times and they came in a day or two and cleaned it,” said Claudio Battaglia.

Across the street, an aquarium store may have the best answer to the graffiti problem — putting pressure on the kids responsible.

“In the 1980s we were getting a lot of graffiti on our wall,” said Dean Cutler, manager of Aquarium City, which has been in the Valley since 1967. “The owner would see these gangsters shopping in the store, so he asked them if they could do anything to stop the graffiti. After that, there was no more graffiti. It never happened again.”

But all over the city it is happening, again and again. For a few bucks, someone can, at least temporarily, spoil a neighborhood. Residents say it’s too easy to do, and City Hall does not yet seem to have a way to stop it — or even slow it.

With essential city efforts like street services getting slashed to the bone in the mayor’s new budget, maybe this year that imaginary swath of sprayed Rust-Oleum will get even worse, making a round trip to New York and back to the Hollywood sign — or maybe the much-discussed crime crackdown promoted by Police Chief Bill Bratton will slow down the taggers.

But in the neighborhoods, from the Valley to South L.A., residents and business owners who spoke to the L.A. Weekly weren’t optimistic. They seemed to agree, there’s always gonna be some fool in this town with a spray can who likes to see his name on a wall.

More on graffiti: Click here to read Christine Pelisek's article, Hitting Taggers where It Hurts.

LA Weekly