June Gloom Gray
Who chooses the paint color
for graffiti abatement in Los Angeles?
by Ian Besler
i. Two Square Miles of Paint
Last year the Office of Community Beautification in Los Angeles oversaw enough painting in its efforts at graffiti removal to have covered each letter of the Hollywood Sign with roughly nine inches of solid paint — about 1,800 variously colored coats rolled out across the face of each of the four-story tall letters.
Since the Office’s internal statistics take into account the three common methods of graffiti removal: painting, chemical washing, and pressure blasting, that hypothetical figure is probably a bit conservative. But if half of the graffiti removal that the Office oversees is accomplished by painting, then we’re talking about enough cumulative pigment to completely cover two square miles of the city’s surfaces over the 15-year period for which statistics are available. Two square miles of stucco, brick, concrete, cinder block, plywood, metal, and more. Hundreds of thousands of surfaces that have been abstracted to a manufactured color of paint — defaced, then brought back as if through the efforts of Hollywood set builders, their material fidelity slightly reduced, but close enough to pass.
The scale of the effort is staggering, and the complexity of it made trickier by the fact that the work aspires for invisibility. If any garish color of paint or any graceless method of removal would do, it might be a simpler task. But community beautification, done as a concerted effort, demands a level of scrutiny with the built environment that few of us will ever experience.
“As much as possible, we want to make it look like the original surface,” says Paul Racs, Director of the Office of Community Beautification, which oversees the roughly 80 crews that are out removing graffiti across Los Angeles on a daily basis. The crews, he says, are adept at negotiating and navigating the complexities of beautification in their designated territory. The city contracts the work through 13 non-profit community-based organizations spread across the 469 square miles of the city.
Simply navigating the jurisdictional thresholds of graffiti removal is an undertaking in itself. The Department of Parks and Recreation handles its namesake turf, Metropolitan Transportation Authority likewise. Expressways are the responsibility of CalTrans. And the County Flood Control District has the pleasure of attending to the sprawling, Brutalist concrete walls of the Los Angeles River.
“What we do is more of what you see driving down a city street,” Racs says: sidewalks, light poles, public facing walls, and the other accumulations of constructed environments that we call Los Angeles.
The struggle between graffiti and beautification results in a visible interface between the general public and the formal and material qualities of our built environment. Through the successive layering of paint, a complex set of interactions, bureaucratic responses, and design outcomes are exposed. And the vast expanses of painted surfaces that we’re left with speak to our expectations and our collective sense of agency in how urban spaces and the cities around us materialize, mature, decay, and eventually disappear.
ii. The Abstraction Line, and Other Intertidal Zones
The verb abate derives from the Old French abattre: “to beat down, to cast down,” and is the source of the word abattoir. The verb bate is a 14th century shortening of abate, but today we only use it in referring to breath that’s diminished in anticipation.
When it comes to the beautification of the built environment, abatement aspires for the diminishment of vandalism through the reproduction or reenactment of what was there before.
Covering concrete with a layer of gloomy gray paint results in a less porous, less textured facade — a low-resolution representation of concrete. The layers of color approximate an abstraction of the building itself.
“Most of the time, we have the standards,” says Carlos Guerra, referring to the stock of paints he keeps in the bed of the White Ford Ranger pickup that he’s driving. “Beige, tan, brown, and white.”
Guerra has been doing graffiti removal work with the Gang Alternatives Program (GAP) in Boyle Heights since 2006. He grew up in Los Angeles, but wasn’t familiar with the East Los Angeles neighborhood until he started working at GAP.
His workdays start at 6:00 a.m. in one of the organization’s small warehouses. He makes sure that his truck is adequately stocked with paint and he’s out in the neighborhood responding to anti-graffiti requests and patrolling for new tags to remove by 6:30 a.m.
On the morning that I ride along with him, he wears a dark blue jumpsuit, matching baseball cap, a reflective-striped safety vest, and a pair of sunglasses that are thoroughly speckled with paint.
“It’s called Zero Tolerance that we have,” he says, referring to the mandate that the Office of Beautification sets out for non-profit contractors. “And we’re supposed to do everything.”
So he tries to paint over, or otherwise remove, every single tag on every applicable surface in his assigned portion of Boyle Heights: the retaining walls, the street lamp poles, and the traffic light control boxes, to name just a few. He usually starts his day with a patrol of the heavily serviced corridors: Cesar E Chavez Avenue, 1st Street, and Soto Street in East Los Angeles.
“When I have it a little bit under control, that’s when I do the other stuff, like pressure washing trees,” he says.
He generally works alone, unless a tag is so large that two workers are required to remove it. He says that he doesn’t get a lot of opportunities to interact with people in the neighborhoods, except for brief chats to get permission to remove a tag from private property. He’s occasionally offered a bottle of water from an appreciative resident, and once in a while, someone will ask him to slap a new coat of paint on their house. But he can’t apply any paint unless there’s some graffiti that it’s covering.
“Sometimes they call us, too, the commercial vans,” he says, pointing to a tagged-up semi-trailer parked in an empty lot. “And they’re like ‘Can you paint my truck?’”
No, they can’t, he says. The contractors are only allowed to work on the more permanent aspects of the built environment, not cars or vans.
In Guerra’s experience, residents and business owners are rarely unreasonable when it comes to questions of how close the new coat of paint matches. They just want a match that’s as close as possible.
“You didn’t ruin the wall, the gangster did, but you get blamed for it,” he says, if you aren’t careful about matching the color of paint with the color of the existing surface. It would look unprofessional to do otherwise.
“If you go and paint a blue wall white,” he says, you’re going to upset the building owner and hear about it from your bosses or the auditors at City Hall.
And so, in Los Angeles, the results of graffiti abatement efforts — a swift coating of beige on stucco or brown on the pole of a street lamp — can often be as visible, sometimes even more noticeable for their considered geometry, than the visually chaotic tag that they aspire to erase. The accumulated outcome of these efforts suggest a visual metaphor for the intangible residue of human experience that so many cities seem to ooze from every pavement crack and grout line. What Los Angeles may lack in history, compared to other cities, it seems to make up for in accumulations of abatement. Today, a brief walk through most neighborhoods of the city can result in an encounter with these Abstraction Lines. Look around any Downtown parking lot, or inside the 3rd Street tunnel beneath Bunker Hill and you’ll see it: The Abstraction Line of Los Angeles.
The Abstraction Line is roughly 80 inches above the ground, about the height of an exterior doorway, and the extended arm’s reach of an average adult standing on the ground. Like a high water line after a flood, it’s visible on many porous surfaces throughout the city. Above the Abstraction Line is uncontested building material. Below the Abstraction Line is a similarly colored, hastily laid representation of the surface as it once was — a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy — becoming more and more irresolute with each pass.
What makes graffiti removal efforts conceptually interesting is that these patchy, blocky, large-scale redactions reveal, on the surface of the built environment, a more complex set of relationships. In an era in which Southern California, and the Western United States more broadly, are acutely focused on drought conditions and the imagery that invariably accompanies it (see the Bathtub Ring at either Lake Mead Reservoir, Nevada or the San Gabriel Dam in Angeles National Forest, California), the Abstraction Line is a close cousin to this imagery of revealing: a visual manifestation of a broader, more complex system of interrelationships and attendant meanings.
In marine biology, an intertidal zone is the contested area of waterline that the high and low tides begrudgingly share. Here, organisms thrive across a spectrum of habitats at the threshold between submersion and exposure, where variations in water salinity, temperature, and tidal pressures create extreme ecological conditions. But the same conditions that force adaptation toward survival also provide an abundance of nutrients. Not coincidentally, intertidal zones, and by extension, many systems that are sited at the threshold where two conditions collide (for instance, water and land, or graffiti and anti-graffiti) are common sites of thriving biological development and “significant ecologies.”
“You would think those guys would get tired of putting it up and us taking it down,” says Carlos Guerra of the taggers and the city’s graffiti removal efforts. The two forces seem to have found an endless cycle in which it participate and interact with one another.
“But no, as soon as you take one down, ten more go up. Like, really?”
iii. “We Don’t Operate Like Spectroradiometers”
Dr. Bevil Conway is a neuroscientist, artist, and an associate professor at Wellesley College. Last year he gave a TEDx talk on visual perception and creativity, and just a few days after I interviewed him, he was featured on Wired, CNN, The Guardian, and NPR to discuss the color of a dress.
“That, to me, is the beginning point of creativity,” he says, referring to the visual disruptions that projects like graffiti removal, The Abstraction Line, and (perhaps) disagreements over the color of a dress, provide for our visual senses. “They fragment this prejudice or assumption that the world is whole and complete.”
He compares the visual experience of seeing patches of gray and beige on a building to reading an essay full of annotations and editor’s marks.
“All of the sudden the wholeness of the essay is called into question,” Conway says, when you see a collection of alternatives and simultaneous possibilities accompanying the finished, supposedly immutable whole.
Our visual perception, he suggests, is very much cued for abrupt, dramatic changes. We’re just not suited for recognizing differences, such as the difference between two different colors, or the differences that manifest across the city over the span of weeks, months, and years.
“Our urban environment, the built environment, is one we take for granted,” he says. “In a way, it’s consistent with a lot of the ways we know the nervous system works.”
Like the metaphorical frog in boiling water, we’re not particularly cued into slow, subtle changes. But if you walk from a warm indoor room to the cold outdoors, you can’t help but immediately feel the difference without even having to think about it.
“The built environment tends to happen very gradually,” Conway says, recalling a real estate development that suddenly thrust itself onto the landscape of his daily commute. A previously forested area was cleared for some rapid new construction. There was a sense of disapproval in the community, but only because the development took form within such a short span of time. If the same work happened over months, or even years, people would be far less likely to notice it as anything worth getting upset over.
Our perception of color functions in a similar way. General consensus has it that we perceive colors discretely, and that each color operates on us in some universal, predictable way: red makes us anxious, or green soothes our nerves.
In reality, Conway says, these truisms haven’t been demonstrated in thorough research.
“Our perception of color involves chromatic interactions plus high level cognitive processes,” he says, along with personal and cultural contexts that aren’t easily generalized. “So we don’t work like we think we work. There’s a lot more interaction taking place.”
And in the space of that interaction is a gap that provides the possibility for different perceptions and experiences between people and their environments. Graffiti abatement, and by extension, the Abstraction Line, occupy a similar gap.
“All of the sudden you end up with a world where a building is no longer a stable entity,” Conway says, at least not stable in a visual sense. So he can understand the motivation behind the Office of Community Beautification’s and building owner’s efforts to discourage a sense that buildings are changeable by just anyone.
iv. “A Legitimate Request in the System”
or: Buildings Are Changeable By Just Anyone
So, aspiring to engage the system, or rather, to thrust myself into a world where a building is no longer a visually stable entity, I set out to place an anti-graffiti request with the online Anti-Graffiti Request System.
“It’s used quite a bit,” says Paul Racs, from the Office of Community Beautification. He says that the system processed 118,000 requests for graffiti removal around Los Angeles in the most recent fiscal year. About 60% of those requests were addressed within 24 hours of submission, 70% within 48 hours, and 85% were closed within 72 hours.
The remaining 15% are trickier situations. For instance, a tag on a sidewalk that needs to be pressure washed, but has a parked car within close proximity each time the contractor visits. Or, as in one noteworthy case, a neighbor who keeps filing requests concerning a mural that he claims should be removed, but for which the property owner won’t respond to repeated requests for clarification: Is it an authorized mural, or just another tag?
In the rapidly gentrifying South Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, I find a small tag on the exterior of the old Downtown Motor Sales building, where I share a studio space, not far from the L.A. Live complex and the Los Angeles Convention Center. Three letters in beige reading “oni” or “onj” have been painted on one of a series of maroon stucco panels that cover the enormous exterior windows. The building opened as a Hudson car dealership in 1939 and the exterior windows originally framed views of the first floor showroom, stocked with the enormous coupés and their signature art deco hood ornaments, clean-lined horizontal chrome grilles, and sweeping front fenders.
I’d never noticed that the depressing stucco maroon panels on the building were actually a cheap covering for what used to be showroom windows. I mentioned this observation to a few other tenants in the building, who agreed that they had never thought about the exterior panels much, either. Nor, I imagine, had any of us spent much time dwelling on the history that the panels suggest. The Motor Sales Building was no doubt impacted by the pattern of urban decay and neglect that swept many American cities through the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. Today, anonymous looking glass and steel condominium towers with names like Evo-South and Luma South litter the nearby built landscape, and the Motor Sales Building earns its keep as a cell site, with dozens of antennae and other digital communications accessories crowning the edges of its roof.
It wasn’t until I became aware of the Anti-Graffiti Request System that I became aware of the building, its contexts, and what those relationships were communicating. And the possibility of directing proxies of the city to paint walls at my bequest lent this information a more tangible, actionable set of implications. I placed my request in the system on a Sunday afternoon. At about 9:15 a.m. the following morning a white Chevrolet pickup truck from the Gang Alternatives Program was parked in front of the wall in question. The tag was painted over with a similar version of maroon, and by 9:30 a.m. the contractor had moved on to some other part the city.
The online request system takes on the conceptually loaded task, as part of its anti-graffiti mission, of providing a comprehensive catalog of our built environment: from “ALLEY-DOOR(S)” to “WINDOWS” and 38 options in between, plus the obligatory catch-all category: “OTHER.” If a user of the system wishes to request the removal of a tag, she must decide whether the vandalism in question concerns “STOP SIGN(S),” “STREET SIGN(S),” or “TRAFFIC SIGN(S)”; whether it occupies a “BRICK WALL,” a “CONCRETE BLOCK WALL,” a “SOUNDWALL,” or a “STUCCO WALL(S).”
It could be said that no other civic enterprise so explicitly asks members of the general public to parse the distinctions between a “RETAINING WALL” and a “SOUNDWALL.”
The online graffiti abatement portal is a means for anyone with access to a computer to assert control over the ephemeral qualities of architecture and space around them. Walking, cycling, using public transit, mobile mapping applications, or driving through Los Angeles, one is left with the impression that, no matter our differences, at least we all seem to have arrived at some tacit agreement: concrete is gray, stucco is beige, tree trunks are brown, and bricks are red.
As I steadily grew accustomed to the rush of architectural augmentation that these new powers provide, I begin to wonder: After how many requests would my use of the Anti-Graffiti Request System become inappropriately zealous?
Some people do use the system excessively, Racs says.
“And they’ll submit something like 30 or 40 requests a day,” he says, for tags as small as two inches in size. “But what do you do? Because you don’t always know if it’s a legitimate request in the system.”
And so, Racs says, contractors quickly get a sense of how to navigate and negotiate requests in their districts. Requests are also less common in areas that see more instances of tagging, a statistic that seems counterintuitive for only a moment. In places like Pico-Union, Racs offers, an individual tag might not catch people’s attention the way that it might in other neighborhoods of the city. So removal contractor crews focus on certain high-activity corridors without waiting for requests from the public. Stretches of Western Avenue, Vermont Avenue, and Washington Boulevard, he says, are probably the most heavily serviced corridors in the city.
One imagines that those intensely concerned citizens are on the street at first light each morning. Perhaps they have a procedural ritual, moving from street light pole to retaining wall, traffic control box to sewer grate, inventorying and examining every exterior surface that describes their neighborhood. The motivation here seems intent on bringing these shared spaces all back to some normative, acceptable state of appearance. But this endeavor begs the question: How many Angelenos are actually content or feel empowered to critically engage with the formal aspects of the built environment around them? And what other sequence of civic interactions opens up a conversation, in the way the Anti-Graffiti Request System seems to, about the material qualities of the design world that we encounter and negotiate, accept or struggle against, on a daily basis?
Christina Agapakis, Andrew Atwood, Erin Besler, Salyna Cun, Aaron Fooshée, Ben Hooker, David Leonard, Gary Leonard, Mario Martinez, Todd Newman, Sarah Rich, Jenny Rodenhouse, and Mimi Zeiger