New fear to add to the list: taggers

Steve Lopez

September 16, 2007

The woman who sent me the note about two recent murders lives on a hill in Highland Park with her boyfriend. I won’t use their real names because it could put them at risk, so I’ll call them Mary and Bob.

Here’s what Mary wrote:

“I am responding to the story about the second person recently killed by taggers. A group of friends in our neighborhood used to commit ‘midnight acts of beautification,’ painting [over] tags and graffiti while someone stood guard with a cellphone. . . Now, of course. . . we are too afraid of being killed to do this any longer.”

Mary was referring to the chilling August slayings of Seutatia Tausili, 65, of Hesperia, and Maria Hicks, 57, of Pico Rivera. The women had confronted taggers in the act and paid for it with their lives, each of them shot dead.

In a region where violent crime is disturbingly commonplace, those two murders stood out as particularly savage and cowardly. Southern California law enforcement officials say violence associated with tagging is on the rise, but how low have we sunk when thugs think nothing of killing defenseless women?

“Come on in,” Mary said, greeting me the other day on the front steps of the one-story bungalow Bob has lived in for 18 years.

She’s an educator and he’s in the toy business, and their tree-shaded street is typical of gentrifying Highland Park, with the condition of houses as diverse as the population. Apartment buildings and poorly maintained pillboxes sit next to roomy, smart-looking rehabs that go for better than half a million.

The house across the street from Mary and Bob used to be home to gangbangers, they said. And the nearby apartment building is frequently tagged. In fact, it’s one of the places where they’ve done cleanups on the q.t., blotting out tags before the paint even dries.

A couple of neighbors, one of whom has worked lookout on the beautification mission, joined us inside.

Over a bottle of Two-Buck Chuck, we talked about their neighborhood and the way they relate to it. Like many Angelenos, they seem to identify less with the greater city, particularly the sprawling and distant Westside, and instead live in their ZIP Code.

“We love it here,” said their friend, an artist who asked me to call him Frederick. What he and his wife love is that an artist can live on the same street as an immigrant laborer and a UCLA professor, just minutes from Pasadena or downtown L.A., and halfway between mountain and sea.

But Frederick hasn’t been in the area as long as Mary and Bob, who find themselves at least as fixated lately on the neighborhood’s challenges as its charms. It’s disheartening to know how many of their neighbors now live their lives indoors, and how few of them are willing to take up the fight.

When you go out at night with a can of paint hidden under your shirt, Mary said, you do it with respect for where you live and you do it to serve notice to gang members.

“You don’t get to communicate here,” she said, adding that unchecked graffiti makes the taggers think they’ve conquered new turf.

“It’s our neighborhood,” added Bob.

But it’s impossible to keep up with the proliferation of tags that Mary sees as ads for murderous gangs. They’re smeared on garage doors and Pasadena Freeway embankments. They’re slapped on storefronts and park buildings. On the beautifully rehabbed Arroyo Seco Library, the spray paint looks like a bad mascara job, and it sickens Mary that neighborhood children have to walk past silent taunts to check out a book.

“I feel like I’m under siege,” she exclaimed, and Bob, meanwhile, has gone from worrying about getting beaten up for blotting out tags to fearing that he could be shot for it. The night-time beautifiers have never been caught in the act, but they aren’t naive. It could happen in an instant.

Not long ago, Bob and Mary were walking their dogs at Hermon Park and saw a group of drunken young men brazenly tagging everything in sight. It bugged them no end that they felt frozen by the fear of what might happen if they spoke up, and they knew at the same time that reporting it to the police or dialing 311 wouldn’t get a timely enough response to matter.

Frederick said the key is to get to the tags quickly and “keep whacking them out. You’ve got to stay on top of it.”

But Mary is afraid of the consequences and doubtful much can be accomplished without far greater muscle from the city, Caltrans and the police.

Even then it would be tough. The problem is also about education. It’s about parenting. It’s about the culture of violence. Los Angeles has never found the right combination of law enforcement and prevention, and Mary is tired of standing in the dark with a can of paint, waiting for the infantry. She looked at Bob when I asked if they had talked of leaving, and the answer was clear in her eyes.

“It’s everywhere,” Frederick said of tags and the long, cold-blooded reach of gangs.

“No, it’s not,” said Mary, who thinks that moving to Pasadena might get them away from the problem. But that would lengthen Bob’s already hideous commute to the South Bay.

And even at that, how could they afford anything as nice as what they’ve got in Highland Park? The wine bottle empty, we left it at that, one more conversation about life in Los Angeles put to bed without an ending.

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