Caltrans declares cease-fire in graffiti war

By Robert Jablon Associated Press Writer
Monday June 18, 2001

Department of Transportation to stop painting over vandalized murals 


LOS ANGELES – California has declared a cease-fire in the war for the walls. 

Complaints by artists have prompted the California Department of Transportation to temporarily halt the whitewashing of freeway murals vandalized by graffiti. 

In the past six months or so, at least four giant wall paintings, some of them dating back to the 1984 Olympics, have been hit by graffiti “taggers” and then partially or completely covered by cleanup crews. 

“We don’t want to destroy artwork (but) we have to obliterate (graffiti) because we do get quite a number of complaints” from drivers, said Michael Miles, the agency’s deputy district director of maintenance for Los Angeles and Ventura counties. 

A few years ago, graffiti artists had an “unwritten code” against spray-painting their names on artwork, said mural artist Frank Romero, who has done numerous public art projects throughout California. 

“I’ve had murals up 20 years and they’ve never been hit,” Romero said. “This is recent, in the last three to five years. It’s a war.” 

These days, the new generation of taggers proudly posts photographs of defaced paintings on Web sites. 

“It’s the name. It’s the fame,” said VcrOne—LA, a former Los Angeles tagger who runs a graffiti Web site and agreed to speak only if his name was withheld. 

VcrOne said one tagger told him murals are “bombed” — spray-painted with large, multicolored signatures — because taggers seeking recognition know it takes longer for the artwork to be “buffed,” that is, painted over or erased. 

Bill Lasarow, president of the nonprofit Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, which works to preserve the estimated 2,500 murals throughout Los Angeles County, said the situation was discouraging. 

If gifted artists lose confidence that their murals will be around for the long term, “the less likely it is that we’ll get world-class art in the public place,” he said. 

After declaring a moratorium several weeks ago on covering the murals, Caltrans is working with the conservancy to obtain federal grants to maintain them. 

Another possibility is enlisting businesses to pay for the upkeep of murals as they do for stretches of freeway under the state’s “adopt-a-highway” program. Caltrans also is considering requiring new murals to be painted at least 10 feet above the ground to prevent taggers from reaching them. 

Caltrans now spends $1.4 million a year in Los Angeles and Ventura counties to clean up freeway graffiti. Workers try to clean up normal graffiti within 10 days. But in the case of murals, it can take 45 to 60 days because the artists are notified and given a chance to repair the damage. 

Artists or their sponsors are responsible for maintaining the murals because Caltrans doesn’t have the resources to do it. Miles said it can cost from $250 to $1,500 to erase graffiti from a mural. 

Artists can’t afford to keep putting out that kind of cash, said Judith Baca, co-founder of the Social and Public Art Resource Center, a Venice-based public mural program. Her 1984 freeway mural, “Hitting the Wall,” a 90-foot piece showing women Olympic marathon runners, has been repeatedly tagged. 

Caltrans would spend less money by paying artists to repair their own work than by sending crews to paint them over, she contended. 

“It is a public work and a gift to the city and to the freeway system,” Baca said. “Maintenance of a work like that is a major cost. It’s in the public sphere, so therefore it should be supported by public money.”