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With Summer, Graffiti May Be on the Rise

By Gathering Marbet
Special to The Lookout

First of two parts

July 15 -- A rash of graffiti across the city that has defaced everything from the site of a double murder in Sunset Park to an upscale boutique on Montana Avenue has spurred speculation that graffiti and tagging incidents are on the rise.

Last month, a message in five-foot-high red scrawl appeared on the Moose Lodge on Ocean Park Boulevard where Hector Bonilla and Jonathan Hernandez were gunned down in March. The tagging-- which included the numbers "5150" -- a section of the penal code regarding dangerous persons with mental disorders -- was painted over almost as quickly as it appeared.

That same week, on Santa Monica's upscale north side, red paint defaced a new BMV van, as well as a trendy furniture boutique, where the words "the rich suck" was scrawled on the front of the store.

While these particular incidents were not reported to police, some City officials and neighborhood leaders worry that, with summer's arrival, graffiti appears to be more visible than ever.

"There has definitely been an increase in the last year," said Andrew Thomas, operations manager for the Bayside District Corporation, which runs the Downtown. "What we want to do is stay on top of it because graffiti begets graffiti."

(Photos by Gathering Marbet)

"Regarding whether there's more graffiti lately… my answer, for myself, is 'yes,'" said Zina Josephs, president of Friends of Sunset Park.

Josephs points to three new tags she spotted during a recent drive down Ocean Park Boulevard -- at the 'smart crosswalk' sign at 16th Street, at the 4th Street underpass and on the mural on a building on Main Street.

The prevalence of graffiti is reflected in the City Council's recent decision to add a third graffiti removal technician to its crew in the new budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

"We are interested in keeping graffiti down," said Judy Rambeau, assistant to the City Manager in charge of community relations. "One way to do this was to add another (eradicator), so that when it's reported we can respond to it in a hurry and paint it out."

While Rambeau did not link the new position to an increase in graffiti, City statistics have shown a steady rise in the number of graffiti removals performed by City crews, from 9,825 in fiscal year 2003-04 to 10,556 in the fiscal year that ended June 30.

And graffiti removals are expected to jump to 13,000 with the addition of the new crew member during the current fiscal year.

Popular targets include light poles, street signs, newspaper vending boxes, alleyways, garbage cans, storefronts and billboards, as well as public restrooms, elevators and parking garages, and even the sidewalk itself.

"What amazes me is that they are becoming much more bold," said Thomas. "It's easy to slap on a sticker, but if you want to do a tag, it takes some time -- and for someone to do it on the Promenade where there are a lot of people and have that time -- it's pretty brazen."

Eddie Greenberg, maintenance supervisor of the Division of Solid Waste in charge of the Promenade and the Downtown parking structures, believes that graffiti is more profuse.

"We are seeing more of it this year than last year," Greenberg said. "You have a little and the next thing you know you have a forest of it."

Given social forces, those who deal with youth don't expect graffiti -- which is used to tout a tagger’s identity, mark a gang’s turf or spell out a slogan -- to go away any time soon.

School board member Oscar de la Torre points out that graffiti is often an attempt by under-privileged and frustrated youths, usually between the ages of 16 and 26, to gain recognition and some source of pride in a rich society that excludes them.

"It's like a cry for help," said de la Torre, who is executive director of the Pico Youth and Family Center, which works with at-risk youth. "These kids are trying to gain some respect, at least in their circles, so they can try to get some self esteem."

De la Torre is concerned with the message that graffiti is sending out to the community and believes that the urge to tag or "piece" is fueled by a consumer culture that has made logos, and signs ubiquitous, but is quick to condemn what isn’t uniform.

"The politicians tag, the corporations tag, the liquor stores tag, and so do the kids," de la Torre said. "Let's be real about it. That's democracy, that's capitalism. Everybody wants their name out there to say they are somebody before they die."

It is one of the center's missions to find a way for kids to express themselves without defacing public and private property in the process, de la Torre said.

But not all graffiti is the product of underprivileged kids.

"It's not only gangs," Greenberg said, and he relays a story.

"I saw this very handsome 17-year-old kid -- blond, looked like he came from a well to do family -- leaning on his bag up against a trash can, and I watched him take out a can of spray paint and start spraying. I told him that he better stop it right there, but he ignored me entirely."

Greenberg called the police in full view of the young suspect, who defiantly continued to deface public property until the police arrived. Police asked Greenberg to make a citizens arrest -- which he reluctantly did -- and they hauled him away.

"I felt bad, like it could have been a kid of mine," Greenberg said.

To Greenberg's surprise the story had a happy ending. The kid found him a few days later and thanked him for being fair. After spending a couple nights in jail, he felt reformed, Greenberg said.

He then promised Greenberg that he would "never do it again" and that he would "make sure that his friends didn't either."

Next: PART II -- Eliminating Urban Scrawl

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